This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2012 - At St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley Wednesday morning, a lot of people talked about the importance of training laid-off workers for the manufacturing jobs opening up across the United States.
But state Rep. Clem Smith has firsthand knowledge of the problem and the solution.
Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, was one of several officials who joined Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at the campus’ Emerson Center for Engineering and Manufacturing for the announcement of a grant of nearly $15 million to a consortium of 10 community colleges in Missouri.
The money, from the Labor Department’s community college and career training initiative, is designed to provide unemployed workers with the skills and the credentials they need in manufacturing fields that are becoming increasingly advanced in their use of technology.
After touring the center’s hands-on lab and talking with students, Solis told the crowd that the grant will provide a much-needed lifeline between the colleges and the employers who can provide them with jobs where they can use their newly gained skills.
And, she said, it will help people who have not been on a campus or in a classroom for a long time – including veterans returning from overseas -- fit into the environment where they will get the technical training they need.
“That’s really the key,” Solis said. “We’ve seen that missing for a long time.”
She said she particularly appreciated meeting with students, including Frances Solis, who was surprised to meet a high-ranking Washington official as she explained the skills she was learning at a surface grinder.
Solis told reporters that one of the top features of the program was how quickly people who need a job can be recruited to colleges, then gain the skills and the credentials they need to fill open positions that companies have.
“You can train the people quickly and get them into the workforce,” she said.
Such training – or in the case of many, retraining – was exactly what Smith needed and what he found when he was laid off back in 2009 from his job at the Chrysler assembly plant in Fenton after 13 years.
For 10 weeks, Monday through Friday, eight hours a day – just like a regular job – he learned what he needed to know to get a job as an aircraft mechanic at Boeing, Smith told the crowd.
“It was some of the best workforce training I have ever had in my life,” Smith said. “If you couldn’t cut it, you weren’t part of the class.”
He praised the federal funds as precisely the kind of assistance that people in his situation need to get back into the workforce and help continue what speaker after speaker hailed as the American renaissance in manufacturing.
“We have to do whatever we can to support these programs,” Smith said, “and this grant will do it. I’m a true testament that these programs work.”
Among the schools that will be partners with St. Louis Community College in the grant are East Central College, St. Charles Community College and Mineral Area College as well as the United Auto Workers Labor Employment and Training Corp., the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Missourit Departmnt o Economic Development.
They will work through the MoManufacturingWINS initiative, providing credentials recognized by manufacturers. The training will combine hands-on and online instruction, weaving basic skills into technical course work.
The federal funds are part of a nationwide program announced last month that includes 54 grants covering nearly 300 schools. It is designed to provide the training needed for students to move into jobs in fields like advanced manufacturing, transportation and health care.
Myrtle Dorsey, chancellor of St. Louis Community College, said such workforce preparation was part of the school’s basic mission and is helping contribute to the increase in manufacturing employment, which has added jobs at a more rapid rate than other industries.
“We are going to continue to help build the skill set needed for manufacturers,” she said.
But U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., noted that efforts by the Obama administration to increase support for job-training programs have had a tough time in Congress.
“I cannot for the life of me understand why recalcitrance in the U.S. House would want to cut programs like this,” Clay told the gathering.
The head of one of those local companies, Keith Guller of Essex Industries, said the grant and the work it will support is exactly what companies like his need – and he had a message that will no doubt be good news for students.
Gesturing over the laboratory where the hands-on training was continuing, Guller said:
“I’ll be happy to hand my cards out to every single person in that laboratory.”
After the ceremony where the grant was announced, Solis told reporters that despite the suspicions raised by some people last week, including Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, the Obama administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are not cooking the books to make the unemployment rate drop just before the presidential election.
When the September numbers were released last Friday, showing that the nation’s jobless rate had fallen to 7.8 percent – the lowest point since Obama took office in January 2009 – Welch tweeted:
“Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers.”
He since has reaffirmed those doubts, writing in The Wall Street Journal today that the statistics were “downright implausible. And that's why I made a stink about it.”
Solis fired back, responding to a question by saying that the numbers released by the agency in her department are unbiased and prepared by professionals who have worked for a number of administrations, both Democratic and Republican.
About Welch, she said:
“I think he’s off-base…. These are experts in their field. There’s no anomaly. There’s no manipulation going on.”