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Obama unveils new $600 billion jobs initiative

GOP has other plans for skills gap

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

President Obama on Wednesday launched a new $600 million job-training initiative, but Republicans wasted little time in arguing they have a better approach to preparing American's future workers.

Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden announced the program at a community college in suburban Pittsburgh. It will steer $500 million in taxpayer dollars to a job-training grant competition run by the Labor Department.

The effort is meant to encourage colleges, employers, and other stakeholders to join forces and craft specific training programs to fill open jobs in a variety of sectors.

In addition, the administration will spend $100 million to push apprenticeships, which are lacking in the U.S. when compared to many other advanced nations.

The new programs — which will be overseen directly by Mr. Biden, who also served as the "sheriff" of the administration's $787 billion stimulus package — is part of the president's renewed focus on the middle class, higher wages, job training and employment.

Mr. Obama also is pushing an increase in the national minimum wage, new overtime protections for employees and other steps he argues will strengthen the nation's middle class and allow poor Americans to climb the economic ladder.

During his speech at the Community College of Allegheny County West Hills Center, Mr. Obama cast job training and education as a critical piece of the larger economic puzzle.

"When it comes to training our workers, not all of today's good jobs require a four-year college degree. But I promise you there's not a job out there that is going to pay a lot if you don't have some sort of specialized training. So our best bet is keeping ahead in the skills race," the president said. "America has a choice to make. We can do nothing, which is the strategy some folks in Washington seem to have, or we can do what we've always done best — we pull together, we fight back and we win. That's what we do best."

But House Republicans have their own ideas on how to fill the nation's skills gap, which both parties agree is a challenge that must be confronted.

Even before the president spoke, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, released a video describing the skills-gap problem and how the GOP is prepared to address it.

"Right now, there are roughly 10.5 million Americans looking for work, yet 4 million job openings remain unfilled. Experts attribute this to a skills gap," the video says. "Every year, taxpayers spend $18 billion on job training problems, but only a fraction of workers receive the training necessary to get a job. What's more, our job training system hasn't been updated since before the dot com bubble burst."

To tackle those problems, the House already has passed the "SKILLS Act," which would streamline federal job-training efforts, eliminate duplicative programs and give would-be employees more freedom in accessing the specific services they need.

The measure has yet to come up for a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and its prospects in the near future appear dim.

Voting on the GOP-backed bill rather beginning yet another new initiative would be "more effective in helping out-of-work Americans get the training they need," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner.

But the president's new proposal was welcomed by some in the business community.

"Closing the gap between the skills workers possess and those required by industry is a priority for America's business leaders," said Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens Corporation and the vice chair of the education and workforce committee of the Business Roundtable. "Key to closing this gap are programs and partnerships that match training with the needs of employers."

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