OAKDALE, Pa. — President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a pair of grant programs designed to bring academic institutions and businesses closer together to help prepare the American workforce for jobs that may otherwise go unfilled.
The grant programs total $600 million, money already in the federal budget. The decision to designate the money for these grants arose from a review of federal jobs programs by Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Obama at a community college here outside Pittsburgh to make the announcement.
“Too many Americans, if they are lucky enough to have a job, are working harder and harder to get ahead,” Obama said. “We’ve got to make sure we have an economy that’s more than just growing for the top down, but from the middle class out.”
Obama’s push for new job-training programs has been made more urgent, senior administration officials say, by the rapid pace of changes reshaping technology, the economy and the education system.
At a time of slow economic growth, Obama is outlining ways, some tried in the past, to carve a more direct path between community colleges and private-sector jobs, particularly in the advanced manufacturing, health care and technology industries.
Positions in those fields are open now, senior administration officials say, but the challenge for schools and for industry is to establish broadly accepted vocational training that will prepare the workforce for the next generation of jobs in a fast-changing economy.
Here at a campus of the Community College of Allegheny County, where Obama spoke in a long warehouse with shelves of engines, parked forklifts and stacks of shipping pallets along walls, educators have designed programs that the president said work and should be replicated across the country.
“You’re doing something right that is making a difference in people’s lives, and we want to spread the word,” Obama said. “It’s never been more important for our folks to be trained for the jobs that are there — and for the jobs of the future.”
In his State of the Union address this year, Obama asked Biden to head “an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: Train Americans with the skills employers need and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now.”
The announcement Wednesday emerged from the review. But several previous presidents, including Obama’s two immediate predecessors, proposed similar ideas to better adapt the workforce to the jobs that the economy was creating.
Senior administration officials said this initiative is attempting to be different, calling it “job driven” rather than dictated by training that may not be best preparing the workforce for the skills needed to secure jobs and a career path.
Doing so, they say, requires far greater collaboration between business and community colleges — what one senior official described as a “collaborative ecosystem” — to design the right training, set standards recognized across an industry and not just by one company, and clearly outline the route from training to a job.
“There isn’t a reason in the world why we can’t be the manufacturing capital in the world – none,” Biden told the audience here to applause. “But the economy is at a crossroads unlike any period in our history.”
The grant programs Obama announced fall into two categories.
The first, to which $500 million is being dedicated, is a competitive process that seeks the best programs linking community colleges with businesses. The idea is to expand the programs nationally, in part by linking them with industry associations.
The other is also competitive and provides $100 million in grants to expand apprentice programs across the country. The United States has far fewer apprentice positions than do European nations, which look to on-the-job training as vital to maintaining capable workforces.
“Businesses need to define the skill sets that they’re looking for in order to meet their needs,” said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who traveled here with the president. “To do this, you have to break silos.”
Because the money has already been allocated, the grant programs allow the president to bypass a divided Congress, as Obama has made clear he intends to do when he thinks it necessary.
The GOP-controlled House passed legislation last year designed to consolidate federal jobs programs, but the Senate has yet to vote on it.
“When it comes to skills training, our first priority should be reforming our current, outdated maze of programs so that they make sense for people in today’s dynamic economy,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday. “We urge the president to work with us to get a bipartisan bill to his desk.”