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Train skilled workers, create good jobs with good wages

August 13, 2017

Originally published in The Day

By Rep. Joe Courtney, CT-2

Last February, President Donald Trump convened a group of manufacturing CEOs at the White House to discuss his administration’s idea of growing American jobs by imposing a border adjusted tax (BAT). As reported the next day, the BAT received lukewarm support at best, and unexpectedly, the CEOs instead pivoted the meeting toward the critical need to close the so-called skills gap preventing companies from filling high quality jobs with highly trained workers.

Indeed, the next day, a national newspaper’s headline read: “Factory CEOs to Trump, ‘Jobs Exist, Skills Don’t.’” Fast forward to the present: The BAT was declared dead by congressional leadership at the end of July, but the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 6.2 million job openings exist across the country, one of the highest levels on record.

Interestingly, one of the oldest and most effective solutions for closing the skills gap has deep connections to eastern Connecticut. In 1937, my predecessor, U.S. Rep. William Fitzgerald of Norwich, authored the National Apprenticeship Act, also known as the Fitzgerald Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The measure established national certification standards for apprenticeship programs in manufacturing and other sectors that have opened pathways to high-quality jobs for the last 80 years. The Fitzgerald Act was the product of the real-life experience that Fitzgerald brought to Washington, having worked in a Connecticut foundry from an early age and later serving as an official in the Connecticut Department of Labor. Fitzgerald knew, even in an era of less complex technology, that connecting workers to a job required consistent, high-quality job training. That process begins in grade school, of course, but apprenticeship training is often the final step in achieving job readiness and positioning workers for success in their future careers.

When the Fitzgerald Act was passed in 1937, the United States was still slowly emerging from the Great Depression and new economic opportunities were few and far between for workers. The value of the Fitzgerald Act became even more evident as the nation boosted factory production to unprecedented levels during World War II. Congressman Fitzgerald played a big part in that effort, too. He left Congress after serving two terms and returned to Connecticut to head up the state’s War Manpower Commission from 1942-1945. As our state churned out plane engines, submarines and military uniforms in incredible numbers (74 submarines and 398 PT boats from Electric Boat alone), Fitzgerald was guiding workforce programs to ensure our soldiers, sailors and airmen had the right tools to get the job done for the Allied Forces.

In recent years, eastern Connecticut has renewed the vision of Congressman Fitzgerald with a restart of apprenticeship training programs to fill job openings in a variety of occupations. With the surge in submarine production over the last five years, coupled with an aging workforce, Electric Boat has collaborated with the federally funded Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board and the state to relaunch apprenticeship training in metal trades and design in 2017. Apprenticeship slots are also being used in health care and information technology sectors where job openings are going unfilled because of the persistent nationwide skills gap.

With the demise of the BAT and the pause on advancements in trade policy, Congress would be well advised to listen to the message of the CEOs who visited the White House and strengthen job-training efforts across the country to close the skills gap. They can do this by improving K-12 STEM education, bolstering tech schools and community colleges, and reinvigorating apprenticeship programs that former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez described in a visit to Groton two years ago as the “gold standard” of job training.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republicans recently passed a budget out of committee that will zero out federal apprenticeship grant funding. There is also an effort underway to weaken the Fitzgerald Act’s national standards that have worked since it was first enacted back in 1937 and built the foundations of the U.S. war effort in World War II. Now is not the time to weaken job training.

Indeed, we should be redoubling our efforts to follow the vision of the foundry worker who was sent to Congress 80 years ago from eastern Connecticut and who transformed the lives of millions of workers who never heard of him. Let us join employers, employees, and skilled educators to build on Fitzgerald’s legacy of training skilled workers and creating good jobs with good wages.