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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump stopped by a Wisconsin community college Tuesday to promote job training, the latest in a parade of presidents and cabinet secretaries to sing from the new-skills, new-economy hymnal.
In fact, his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, visited a Florida community college soon after being sworn in. And just this week, the government awarded Youngstown State University a $1 million grant to do more job training.
Ohioans might remember a parade of past presidents and cabinet secretaries doing the same thing in the Cleveland area. President Barack Obama made a stop at Lorain County Community College in 2012 and told the audience, "I meet business owners all the time who want to hire in the United States, but they can't always find the workers with the right skills."
That's why the Trump message this week has a familiar ring: The United States needs to provide more vocational, technical and job-skills training at community colleges, and to expand apprenticeships in careers that promise solid incomes. Presidents, including George W. Bush, have said it for years.
Yet Trump's message is more mixed. He is touting community colleges, job training and apprenticeships while his proposed budget would cut job training funds significantly. It would eliminate funding for the very agency that awarded the money to Youngstown State.
Is there a disconnect? And on the training question, why do presidents keep saying the same thing?
The White House says there is no disconnect. On the redundancy of the message, most parties, though not all, applaud the broad goal.
But Democrats and job-training advocates are scratching their heads over the funding, and over the Trump administration's math.
What did Trump do this week?
First, he and his daughter Ivanka visited Waukesha County Technical College in Milwaukee on Tuesday. They stressed the role community colleges play in workforce training.
Then on Thursday, the president signed an executive order at the White House to shift partial responsibility for apprentice programs from the government to private industry, and to cut related government regulations.
He also ordered a review of dozens of federal job-training programs, which the White House said are excessive and duplicative.
Separately, the Appalachian Regional Commission this week announced it was awarding Youngstown State University $1 million to help renovate a facility for its Excellence Training Center. The center trains workers in advanced manufacturing technologies.
Sounds great. What's wrong with that?
Money for the Youngstown grant flowed from a spending bill Trump, only months into his presidency, had nothing to do with. And if Trump gets his way, the agency giving out the money, the Appalachian Regional Commission, will be shuttered. Trump's proposed 2018 budget provides no money for the agency.
Similarly, the president's budgets for the departments of Labor and Education, which also oversee job-training programs, also call for cuts — 19.8 percent for Labor, 13.5 percent for Education.
Money for a primary training program, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, would be sliced by 39 percent under Trump's budget proposal. The White House said in its budget request that responsibility for funding these programs "and training American workers" would shift to states, cities and employers.
Congress will have a major say on whether that actually happens.
Since every recent president has had a similar job-training message, and since billions have been spent already, is this necessary?
Job training advocates, business leaders, community college directors, White House officials and some economists say yes. "The U.S. faces a serious skills gap," Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said last week.
Take jobs that don't require a four-year college degree but require skills generally learned beyond high school. Fifty-three percent of all jobs in the United States fall into this "middle-skill jobs" category, says Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition, which advocates for training, apprenticeships and other policies. Getting one of these jobs requires knowledge of math, computer operations or programming, specialty healthcare skills or the ability to adapt and problem-solve.
But only 43 percent of the workforce has these skills, he says.
So it's settled, and past presidents and Trump are right about this?
There is debate, although it tends to come from academic circles. The official unemployment rate is now relatively low, at 4.3 percent nationally. In Ohio, it is 4.9 percent. While the government estimates there are 6 million unfilled jobs, some economists have said that if wages were higher, the gap wouldn't persist.
And some research economists at universities and the Federal Reserve say other issues, such as tough screening requirements that raise the bar for getting a job, factor in. So do the retirements of baby boomers and shifts in what they did compared with their successors.
The New York Times looks at this in a new story, saying that while economic indicators confirm a historically high number of job vacancies, "research economists tend to believe that the skills gap accounts for, at most, a limited portion of this development. Many experts believe it plays almost no role at all."
Let's suppose Trump, Obama and Bush were right. Considering the parade of presidential visits to community colleges and training centers, why aren't our workers trained already?
The economy is always evolving, so specific job requirements change as well, says Jon Keeling, communications manager for the Ohio Department of Job and Family services, which manages and coordinates Ohio's multi-agency initiative.
William Gary, executive vice president of workforce development programs at Cuyahoga Community College, cites ongoing demand from employers and students alike for skills in healthcare, the steel and electric power industries, welding and truck driving, among other things. Tri-C graduates in these programs get jobs, he says.
"The demands at the community college level are increasing," Gary said.
And so are the demands for funding.
But we have spent a lot already, haven't we?
Yes. But funding comes and goes as Congress in one session passes one program and in another lets it expire or refocus on other goals and programs.
Take the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants, promoted by Obama. About $2 billion worth were authorized for community colleges altogether, for skills development in advanced manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, science, technology, engineering and math. In fact, the Florida community college DeVos visited in March, Valencia College, got one worth $2.5 million in 2014 to "expand and enhance training and education for in-demand jobs," the college said at the time.
But the grants were only awarded from 2011 through 2014. Then the program expired.
"We're doing a good job talking about the policy, but in the funding we're falling behind," said Angela Hanks, associate director for workforce development policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
That's just one program, and an anecdote doesn't tell the whole story.
Right. Let's look at the big programs.
Since 2001, workforce grants from the Department of Labor have dropped by 40 percent when you count inflation, says Kaleba, of the National Skills Coalition.
During the same time, the Department of Education's career and technical education grants have dropped by 30 percent.
Those are separate programs. So is there duplication? That's what Trump says, right?
He does. The White House said several times over the last week that there are 43 job-training programs across 13 agencies, totaling $16.7 billion, not counting Pell grants. Many of these programs "do not work and must be reformed," a White House fact sheet said.
Trump signed an executive order Thursday telling the head of each federal agency to submit a list of programs designed to promote skills development and workplace readiness. He asked them to work with outside parties to assess the programs' effectiveness, and to recommend programs that could be eliminated because they are ineffective, redundant or unnecessary.
This could help inform cuts or changes in the fiscal year 2019 budget, the White House said.
Cutting redundancies would make sense and save money, right? Other than saving their entrenched interests, why would anyone object?
Let's stipulate that there are entrenched interests. Who doesn't want to save his job?
But the White House numbers used to bolster its argument are curious, and not just because of the downward trend mentioned already.
The last time Congress passed a big bill laying out the parameters for workforce training — the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 — lawmakers seized on a slightly high number of job-training programs, 47, which came from a 2011 Government Accountability Office study that cited this very duplication.
Republicans, including Ohio U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, insisted that the duplication and inefficiency be cut. And they were pleased that the workforce bill did that, requiring that 15 of these programs be eliminated.
So you're saying Congress already required getting rid of duplication?
Yes. And the cuts have happened, Hanks and others said.
"I think the real problem is the administration is operating on old information," she said.
Other workforce-training advocates agree not only that there have been cuts, but also that the programs regarded as extraneous have been narrow and designed for specific populations such as Native Americans, farm workers and so on. Most people who get job-training assistance enroll in one of a small group of programs.
The 2014 bill lauded by Republicans and signed by Obama also required better tracking of the programs' efficiency. And it set up more coordination at the state and local levels so job training and other assistance could be offered at single local sites rather than spread across offices.
Why did the White House use that number?
That's hard to say. The White House referred us to the Department of Labor, or DOL, when we asked.
Jennifer Hazelton, a spokeswoman at the department, said in an email, "I can only speak from a DOL perspective. I can't speak government wide. I am aware of the past GAO study which cited 47, but we do not know what number GAO would use today."
DOL, she said, lists 18 job training programs under its jurisdiction, from the big ones for adults and students to Job Corps and apprenticeship programs.
OK, what's going on with apprenticeships this week, anyway?
Trump wants to vastly expand the use of apprenticeships, encouraging more companies, unions and industry groups to start programs independent of the government, although with government oversight. He also says he wants to cut regulatory barriers. His proposal would create 5 million new apprenticeships in five years, a nearly ten-fold increase.
"So we're empowering these companies, these unions, industry groups, federal agencies to go out and create new apprenticeships for millions of our citizens," the president said when signing the executive order Thursday. "Apprenticeships place students into great jobs without the crippling debt of traditional four-year college degrees. Instead, apprentices earn while they learn — which is an expression we're using: Earn while you learn."
Will this take money?
Trump says he wants to offer $200 million worth of help.
Where will he get it?
The answer is unclear.
His proposed $200 million is slightly more than double the current DOL budget to assist internship programs. Yet Trump's proposed 2018 budget, released in May, does not address this proposed increase. More broadly, his budget proposal would cut workforce training and the entire Department of Labor overall.
The White House suggests it will get the money by shifting programs and funding to areas it deems priorities and that work best. That means other programs will have to lose funding.
How will that work out? The details are yet to be seen.