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U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Delivers Remarks at American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Opening Session

Saturday, April 5, 2014

It is a true honor to receive the Harry S. Truman Award from such a highly-esteemed organization.

In the past, I know that the Truman Award has been given to great companies like Coca-Cola, wonderful nonprofits like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and dynamic leaders like the late Senator Ted Kennedy as well as Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Thank you all for considering me among this prestigious group.

In 1947, President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education released a groundbreaking report that called for a dramatic expansion of community colleges across the country.

Because of his Administration’s efforts, one of the city colleges in my hometown of Chicago is named after him – Harry S. Truman College.  

And today, I am reminded of the slogan that the Chicago city colleges have adopted –“Education that Works.”

To me, that phrase captures the immense value that your  1,200 institutions provide to 13 million students each year. Every day, you help Americans find paths to good jobs – jobs that allow them to provide for their families… while also strengthening the local and national economy.

Each of you understands that for America to compete in the 21st century, it is alll of our responsibility to ensure an educated, flexible, and dynamic workforce.  

Skills and workforce development is a personal passion of mine. I led efforts such as Skills for America’s Future before becoming Secretary and now at the Commerce Department, my team has made this a top priority for the first time in our history.

There are two main reasons for this.

First, too many Americans are still out of work, particularly the 4 million long-term unemployed.

And second, too many business leaders continue to say that they have trouble finding workers with the needed skills.

I believe that we can do a better job of helping BOTH America’s workforce AND America’s businesses if – and only if – we build stronger partnerships across ALL stakeholder groups at the local, regional, and national levels. And I believe that community colleges are central to building the dynamic ecosystems of training that American workers need to compete in the years ahead.

Let me briefly offer 2 ways that community colleges can lead the way:

First, community colleges and industry must come together to support nationally-recognized certifications and credentials. Your students want to know that they will receive a certification that is highly valued by prospective employers.

At the same time, employers need to know that they can turn to your colleges to find and recruit well-qualified workers.  

I am thrilled to see leaders in higher education and in business taking action.

For example, I recently visited Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. They are leading a consortium of 10 community colleges across the country to create portable certifications in STEM fields.

Business groups are also stepping up. I recently met with executives from the well-known Business Roundtable. They are planning to identify and scale-up the best credentialing programs across 20 trade associations.

Today, I ask each of you to do more to adopt and integrate nationally-recognized certification and credentialing programs into your curricula.

A second way that community colleges and businesses can work together is by launching and expanding apprenticeship programs that link classroom education with hands-on experience.

Last week, I saw how BMW in South Carolina partners with three local technical colleges.  

Through the BMW Scholars program, students rotate through the body shop, paint shop, and assembly lines on the factory floor while also getting tuition assistance for classes in robotics and engineering at the technical college.

In addition, I heard how Clemson University is working with ALL of South Carolina’s 16 technical colleges to build a talented pool of STEM workers to meet the needs of firms that are quickly expanding in that state.

Today, I ask that each of you work with your local employers and your fellow leaders in higher education to create effective apprenticeship programs here at home.

Overall, the common thread that I have seen in effective workforce-development ecosystems is a commitment to partnership among community colleges, businesses, universities, government, and other regional and national institutions.

Each of us must work harder than ever to break down silos.

That is the call to action I leave you with today.

For our part, the President has directed ALL of us in the Cabinet to ensure that workforce-training programs – and dollars – support that approach. I hope that your institutions are forming strong partnerships with employers in anticipation of opportunities such as the next round of TAACCCT grants.

If we integrate and align each region’s assets and resources, I am confident that we will achieve the vision of Harry S. Truman College – “Education that WORKS.”

Let me close with a quote from Truman himself.  

When he released that powerful report in 1947, he said this: "A carefully developed program to strengthen higher education […] will inevitably strengthen our Nation and enrich the lives of our citizens.”

As a passionate supporter of lifelong education for all Americans – across all disciplines – I believe that statement still resonates throughout this room and across our country.

Thank you again for the honor of receiving this wonderful award.

Have a great evening and a productive conference.