The Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation, and Export Promotion held a hearing on promoting American competitiveness: filling jobs today and training workers for tomorrow. This April 17 hearing included testimony from Martha Kanter, Undersecretary, US Department of Education; Roger Kilmer, Director of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Jane Oats, Assistant Secretary of Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor; Robert Kill, President and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota; Jennifer McNelly, President of The Manufacturing Institute; Lee Lambert, President of Shoreline Community College (WA); Don Nissanka, President and CEO of Exergonix; and Monica Pfarr, Corporate Director of The American Welding Society.
This hearing examined the role that training programs play in developing a highly skilled workforce and also examined opportunities of building partnerships between government, industry, and the education community in response to the needs of employers.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) opened the hearing by expressing her interest in integrating high school and community college training programs with workforce needs. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) stated that more local and state training programs and partnerships with businesses at the state level are key to solving the workforce training problems faced by employers.
Kilmer presented an overview of how MEPs address workforce training for skills needed in the advanced manufacturing sector. He stated that small manufacturing enterprises have difficulty maintaining the skills training necessary to advance their workforce needs and that MEPs provide technology acceleration, supplier development, sustainability, workforce and continuous improvement support.
“MEP’s vision is to strengthen American manufacturing – accelerating its ongoing transformation into a more efficient and powerful engine of innovation driving economic growth and job creation…. As MEP creates an environment of rapid manufacturing innovation, we must also create workforce strategies and tools specifically for small manufacturers that will support their adoption of sustainable, high-tech production and increased exporting. As we grow domestic industry, replace retiring workers, encourage exporting, and bring manufacturing back into the U.S. from abroad, we must ensure that we have the workforce manufacturers need with skills in sophisticated manufacturing processes – the kind of advanced manufacturing that MEP is supporting.”
Oats emphasized the benefits of the Workforce Investment Act and stated that the public workforce system plays a leadership role in the development of training programs. In her statement, she gave an overview of the Jobs Innovation Accelerator Challenge which supports 20 high growth regional industry clusters in advanced manufacturing. She offered facts about employers needing to hire H1B visa holders rather than US workers to fill some skilled positions stating that the manufacturing industry is one of the largest sectors hiring H1B visa applicants.
Kanter’s testimony summarized the wide variety of opportunities offered at community colleges. She pointed out that community colleges vary in structure, mission and resources but that they are a place to acquire new skills and training, receive job certification, and are local and affordable springboards for students wishing to change careers. Community colleges are challenged with increases in enrollment and at the same decreasing budget resources. Community colleges are faced with needing to reach out to the local community to help support the funding of lab spaces. She emphasized the need to preserve Pell Grants to low-income students and described the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program which provide preparation for manufacturing jobs.
Kill gave an overview of the Growth Accelerator Program which addresses the skills gap created by the rapid changes in technologies relating to manufacturing. He offered the following facts to highlight the severity of the unemployment problems in manufacturing:
“In the fourth quarter of 2011, there were 4,925 unfilled jobs in Minnesota’s manufacturing sector, accounting for 9.8 percent of all job vacancies in the state. This means that there is a collective $5.5 million in average weekly wages that could be paid to manufacturing workers, that isn’t being paid due to vacant positions in the industry. That number of career vacancies continues to grow based on the results of our State of Manufacturing® survey. This gap will widen as more workers retire.”
Nissanka’s testimony depicted how US innovation is lost as we ship jobs overseas because the innovation at the ground level is occurring in places other than the United States. He summarized the Missouri Innovation Campus which focuses on math and science training programs combined with job training.
Lambert stated that the success of the Professional Automotive Training Center, a premier automotive training center in the US, is due to the communication between the training center and business leaders in order to match the skills needed by businesses with the training courses and experiences offered to students at the center. Pfarr emphasized the high percentage of goods in this country that are still manufactured using welding techniques. She gave an overview of the Careers Trailer that contains welding simulators where participants can practice virtual welding.
McNelly began her testimony by stating statistics about the deteriorating condition of the manufacturing workforce but highlighting community college programs that trained workers in 16 weeks. She highlighted that aligning workforce training with industry demands is why the National Association of Manufacturers supports S. 1243 the America Works Act.
Questions to the panelists included Senator Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) inquiry into whether the skills certification programs mentioned in the testimony are headed in the proper direction, to which the panelists agreed that it was. Blunt also inquired about anticipating the future needs of jobs skills. Klobuchar inquired as to how community colleges persuade often hesitant parents that these job training programs are a good investment.