If you could get a return of $27 for every one dollar that you invested in a company, you would jump at the chance. According to United States Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, that is exactly the return we get for every federal dollar that is spent on apprenticeship training programs. As the Secretary points out, apprenticeships are a tried and true approach for passing the practical training needed to succeed in a job on to the next generation. An apprenticeship is just as applicable to the complex skills needed to compete in the 21st century workforce as it was in the 18th century when this country was founded.
I invited Secretary Perez to come to Maine last week so he could see apprenticeship programs in action at Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. These two important Maine employers have instituted apprenticeship programs to attract and train highly skilled workers that will help keep their operations competitive for years to come. It is fitting that these two facilities, so important to our nation’s security and our state’s economic future, are on the cutting-edge of workforce development.
Secretary Perez has devoted his career to supporting, protecting, and developing a strong American workforce. His obvious enthusiasm for improving opportunities for our workers is infectious, and he has a very clear vision about how job training can lead to a stable and secure middle-class lifestyle.
Secretary Perez and I began the day at BIW, a 131-year-old company that depends on highly skilled workers to produce the most advanced surface combatant ships in the world. As the current workforce ages, the shipyard will have to hire many new workers in the years ahead. The leaders from the company and the trade unions recognized the need to provide additional training in order pass specialized shipbuilding skills on to the next generation of workers. They have collaborated on a training program that will help do just that. This relatively new program, which includes an emerging partnership with Southern Maine Community College, has tremendous potential and could be vital to the future success of the shipyard.
We then concluded the day at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Over 200 years old, PNSY is one of only four public shipyards in the United States. Known as the “Cradle of American Shipbuilding,” the skilled workers at PNSY today overhaul and maintain the nuclear submarine fleet of the United States Navy.
PNSY has gone from “sail to the atom” by supporting a rigorous and robust apprentice program, where on-the-job learning, technical trade training, and academics combine to produce the highly skilled workers required by this demanding field. PNSY works closely with York County Community College to offer credits towards associate degrees in trade and technical occupations.
During our tour of the shipyard’s learning centers, Secretary Perez and I had the opportunity to meet PNSY apprentice Jennifer Ouellette, who exemplifies the opportunity effective workforce training programs can provide.
A native of South Berwick, Jennifer attended college for three years before deciding to pursue a hands-on trade and to turn her passion for welding into a career. This inspired her decision to enter the shipyard’s Trades Apprenticeship program in 2012, and she will graduate as a Journeyman Mechanic with a certificate from the Department of Labor in February 2016. Jennifer currently works on the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scranton as a structural welder and is looking forward to a career at PNSY.
PNSY has a model apprenticeship program which fulfills critical Navy requirements to overhaul, repair, and modernize Los Angeles and Virginia-class submarines. It is one of the largest employers in the seacoast, employing approximately 4,800 civilian employees, and apprentices currently make up about one-third of the production workforce.
I was especially pleased to see how well this program was performing because I worked to include provisions in appropriations bills directing the Navy to induct at least 100 apprentices at each naval shipyard. When we make these important investments in the American workforce, our communities, our State, and our country benefit from the strong return and positive growth they yield.
Touring these two facilities reinforced both Secretary Perez’s and my commitment to workforce training. Last year, I supported the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which passed by an overwhelming, bipartisan vote in Congress and was signed into law by the President. This legislation was a good step towards bringing much-needed improvements to federal job-training programs that American workers can use to develop the skills and knowledge to compete in the 21st Century global economy. These were the first major reforms to federal job-training programs in 15 years.
Despite recent improvements in our nation’s unemployment rate, job openings in high-growth industries remain unfilled. In fact, recent data shows that about one-third of the increase in unemployment among college-educated workers in the United States from 2006 through 2010 was the result of workers not having the right skills for available positions. The reforms we passed last year strengthen federal job-training programs that work while eliminating others that were ineffective or duplicative. They establish new public-private partnerships with a focus on employment outcomes, employer satisfaction, and increased accountability for taxpayer dollars.
Workforce development will continue to be a priority for me. It is a critical component to preserving many of the good jobs that we have in Maine and it will be one of the keys to attracting more good jobs in the future.