The bipartisan rejection of Andrew Puzder as secretary of labor was a victory for workers struggling to live paycheck to paycheck. As senators now consider the new nominee, Alexander Acosta, they should ask how he intends to build on the Obama Department of Labor’s investments to provide American workers with 21st century skills to succeed in a rapidly changing global economy, particularly if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget includes deep cuts for job training initiatives.
I had the privilege of being involved in the great progress made during the Obama administration to provide more job opportunities for more Americans. I also have roots in Ohio and appreciate the resonance of Trump’s campaign promise centered on trade-policy reform to create jobs for blue-collar voters who have seen factories close and jobs shipped overseas.
Yet, trade policy alone cannot adequately address the challenges workers face in an economy filled with technological innovations. Take truck driving, an industry that employs roughly 3.5 million workers and is the most common job in Kentucky. Last year, Anheuser-Bush partnered with Uber subsidiary Otto to successfully transport 2,000 cases of beer 120 miles in a self-driving semi-tractor truck.
Such innovations create a more advanced economy and better way of life for Americans, but they also lead to job churn and must be harnessed in a way that creates good paying jobs in diverse sectors and geographic locations. Technology executives — successful business people who understand the potential of their industry, as well as the importance of the people that drive it — discussed this point with Trump when meeting with the then president-elect in December.
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The Department of Labor is the federal agency best equipped to make this happen. This includes implementing the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), a new law that supports regional job-driven strategies that design programs to provide workers with skills employers need, and financing state workforce development activities.
It also includes building on the $150 million investment in TechHire grants made last year to support innovative job training approaches in high-growth sectors like advanced manufacturing and financial services. These grants already placed roughly 4,000 people in well-paying jobs across the country.
The TechHire initiative also involves working with communities to get more Americans rapidly trained for technology jobs. One such example is Eastern Kentucky where there is a realization that, despite the president’s and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s promises, there will not be a major return of coal-industry jobs and the workforce must evolve to survive.
To diversify the regional economy, Republican Congressman Hal Rogers and Democratic Governor Steve Beshear in 2013 launched the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, which leverages partners receiving WIOA money for job training. One outgrowth of the initiative is Bit Source, a software development startup led by former coal worker Rusty Justice that is training workers, including former coal employees, to write computer code.
Rather than focusing on the ratings of “The Apprentice,” his reality TV show, the president should build on these efforts by advancing the work the Labor Department did under President Barack Obama to expand apprenticeship opportunities in more states and industries, such as health care and information technology. This combination of on-the job training and instruction provides workers a learn and earn alternative to college with apprentices receiving an average starting wage of $50,000 and employers getting an average of $1.47 in increased productivity for every dollar invested.
Thanks to a concerted effort by the Labor Department and bipartisan congressional support, we added more than 125,000 apprentices since 2014. A grant awarded last year to Kentucky, for example, aims to add 1,300 registered apprentices across the state in the health-care, manufacturing and construction industries.
Workers in Kentucky and the Midwest were critical to Trump’s election victory. If confirmed, Acosta’s ability to put American workers first in the new economy will determine whether President Trump fulfills the campaign promise he made to these voters.
Daniel Zeitlin is a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor in the Obama administration.