Perez: We're Getting 'Our Butts Kicked' on Workforce Investment

The Labor secretary says U.S. spending on public-sector training efforts is lagging.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.  (National Journal)

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez sat down earlier this week with Atlantic Media Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein to discuss the challenge of upgrading American workers' skills. Perez spoke at the spring summit for National Journal's Next America project one day after President Obama announced a new Youth CareerConnect grant program to promote the development of secondary schools, such as New York City's P-TECH, that combine high school and community-college degrees with work experience in one accelerated package. Edited excerpts follow.

In terms of upgrading skills, what is the relative balance of responsibility between the public sector — and the kinds of programs that you administer — and the private sector?

I think it's a partnership. I spend as much time with [Commerce Secretary] Penny Pritzker as with anyone in the Cabinet. We're trying to work with the business community to understand not only what the demand needs are, but what are the underlying core competencies that are essential to meet those demand needs and what can we do to scale up credentials that would be industry-recognized and would be stackable [and] portable.

Do American employers invest enough in training their workers?

American companies invest quite a bit. But with midsized and smaller employers, a lot of times they're not capable of having their own training department in a way somebody like Siemens can have. A big part of what we're trying to do is recognize that we need to build an economic system that enables everybody to get access [to effective training]. You compare the public-sector investment in workforce in the U.S. with other countries and once again we kind of get our butts kicked. A fundamental challenge right now for us is to demonstrate more effectively the return on investment from our public-workforce system.

The president just announced the Youth CareerConnect grants. What is the problem you're trying to solve there?

To provide a career pathway for people that is relevant to existing demand needs and, in that process, give people exposure to the opportunities that are out there. At Sarah Goode Academy in Chicago — this is a STEM academy — I'm guessing that 90 percent or more of the students would qualify for free and reduced meals. If you ask them, "What did you do last summer?" [they tell you,] "I came to school and I took geometry." Then they were going with their mentors at IBM to see what it's like to be in the workforce. They are aiming high. We've got to give our kids the opportunity to get these experiences that get them aiming high.

Do you think these kinds of programs could be a significant contributor to the way kids are educated?

In short: absolutely. This isn't a panacea, but I think this is a very promising model.

You alluded to the review of federal job-training programs that Vice President Joe Biden is conducting. What should we expect from that?

A blueprint that will enable us to help more people up-skill and get access to the in-demand jobs that are out there, and [also] ideas for how to scale programs that work. We've got a little bit of a tree-falling-in-the-woods challenge because there's great innovation at local and state levels, but these solutions, in my experience, tend to be regional. I want to be able to look everybody in the eye and say, "If you're willing to work hard and get the skills to compete, we're going to find that road map for you."

Why are there so many federal jobs programs, and do they need to be consolidated?

The best way to answer that question is to give you an example. There are five different funding streams for veterans. There are some vets who just need help writing their résumé, and they're off and running. There's a funding stream that enables us to help vets with disabilities. Some vets are homeless. I don't think of those five funding streams as five programs. I think of these like apps on an iPhone. In some cases, you may need all five of those apps to help them; in some cases, you might just need employment services. I don't think the most important question is that number [of programs]. I think the most important question is: What is our operating philosophy for how we can meet the demand needs of employers and the up-skilling needs of workers?

Stephanie Czekalinski contributed to this article