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By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama promoted his latest attempt to help U.S. workers compete in the global “skills race,” announcing $600 million in grants for job-training programs focused on industry partnerships and apprenticeships.

Speaking at a community college near Pittsburgh, Obama warned Wednesday that other countries have done more to train workers and that the United States is in danger of slipping behind as it tries to rebuild its battered manufacturing sector.

“We can’t stop technology. And you’ve got a global economy now where we’ve got to compete. We live in a 21st-century global economy. Jobs know no borders,” Obama said.

“Other countries know this. Countries like Germany, China, India — they’re working every day to out-educate our kids so they can out-compete our businesses,” he said. “And each year, frankly, it shows that they’re making more progress than we are. We’re still ahead, we’ve still got the best cards, but they’re making some good decisions. We’ve got to make those same decisions.”

Earlier this year, Obama gave Vice President Joe Biden the task of evaluating and improving the tangle of federal job-training programs, many of which a Government Accountability Office report in 2011 called duplicative. Obama and Biden both made the trip to the Community College of Allegheny County in Oakdale to tout the results of that work.

Obama announced $500 million in competitive grants, the fourth installment of $2 billion already allocated for job training. This set of grants will give priority to programs that include direct partnerships between national industry groups and community colleges in an effort to ensure schools are offering training in the skills most in demand.

The money also will pay for programs that try to standardize certification programs or encourage better collection of data on the workforce at the state level, according to senior administration officials, who asked not be named.

An additional $100 million will be directed toward apprenticeship programs. Administration officials said that such training is not used enough and that 87 percent of workers who complete an apprenticeship are hired by the employers and earn an average of $50,000.

“You get an apprenticeship, you’re there, you’re learning on the job. People see that you’re serious about working,” Obama said. “The bottom line is, if you’re willing to put in the work to get a job or earn a promotion in today’s economy, America’s job-training system should give you every possible chance.”

Obama’s latest effort uses existing federal money and, like much of what the president does these days, does not require approval from Congress. The apprenticeship program will be funded by fees collected from companies when they apply for visas for high-skilled workers. The money is designated for job training.

Republicans in Congress also have proposed changes to job-training programs. House Republicans said their Skills Act would streamline programs and improve accountability for federal- and state-funded programs.

“When it comes to skills training, our first priority should be reforming our current, outdated maze of programs so that they make sense for people in today’s dynamic economy,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH).

Obama’s day trip — “a guys’ trip,” he joked — gave the president and the vice president a chance to tout an economic initiative in familiar territory for Biden. Noting his Pennsylvania credentials, Scranton-born Biden was upbeat about where the United States stands in the global competition for jobs.

“You go around, you hear people talking down the economy. America is better positioned than any country in the world to lead the world in the 21st century. The rest of the country — the rest of the world doesn’t have, as we used to say up in Scranton, in my neighborhood, not a patch on our jeans, I tell you,” he said.

© / Chip Somodevilla

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