- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Using jobs-hungry Rhode Island as a testing ground for one of Democratic President Barack Obama’s economic priorities, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez toured a labor union’s apprenticeship program Friday to talk with aspiring plumbers and pipefitters hoping to lift themselves into middle-class careers.

“Apprenticeship is the other college, except without the debt,” Perez said after meeting with a diverse group of trainees learning how to weld.

The Obama administration has said it will distribute $90 million this year to help states expand apprenticeship programs. That’s on top of $175 million awarded last fall, all of it focused on opening up high-paying apprentice networks to minorities, women and other underrepresented groups.

It’s a message that pairs with the “skills that matter and jobs that pay” slogan of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, who hosted Perez’s visit Friday and has tied her political future to a promise of improving the state’s jobs climate and economy after it was hit hard by the last recession.

After winning $5 million in federal money last fall for the state’s Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative, Raimondo’s office has partnered with employers and other organizations to enroll underemployed workers, including military veterans and the formerly incarcerated, into programs that train them and help place them in new careers.

“It’s a demand-driven model,” Raimondo said. “We need to be flexible to the needs of employers.”

They were accompanied by local mayors and Rhode Island’s two U.S. senators on Friday as they toured the East Providence headquarters of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 51. The union this month enrolled about a dozen people in a new pre-apprenticeship program that received $131,400 through the federal-state grant.

Among the trainees is 27-year-old Providence resident Jeff Medeiros, who barely makes ends meet splitting his time working at McDonald’s and doing custodial work at a performing arts center.

After a crash course to learn the basics of welding and other skills, Medeiros and other trainees plan to shift into the union’s five-year paid apprenticeships, which typically lead to high-paying journeyman jobs. Medeiros, who said he has always been artistically inclined, said it’s hard work but “there’s a finesse to it” that he is learning to love. It’s also opened his mind to the hope of one day owning a home.

“I have goals I never had before,” he said.

Perez, comparing the program with his undergraduate experience five miles away at Brown University, said apprenticeships are as viable as universities as pathways to prosperity.

Perez became labor secretary in 2013, not long before Obama called during his 2014 State of the Union address for an overhaul of America’s training programs that would bring “more on-the-job training and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.”

Perez has been discussed as among a long list of possible candidates to be Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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