Why the state of skills training should be a big part of the State of the Union
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If there was any doubt that the state of our union is divided, look no further than what has transpired over the last month – we had the longest government shutdown in history, which cost our economy $11 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Not to mention the uncertainty about what happens after Feb.15 if Congress doesn’t reach a compromise to keep the government open.

But there’s one issue that unites people on Capitol Hill, at places of business, and at kitchen tables across America: skills training.

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New polling shows that 93 percent of voters support more investment in skills and technical training. That’s because people understand that these investments give hard-working Americans the skills they need to compete in today’s economy and businesses access to a pipeline of trained, skilled employees.

Last year, Congress worked on a bipartisan basis to reauthorize the Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act – which provided about $1.2 billion per year for high school and postsecondary skills training programs. And the reauthorized Farm Bill expanded access to training for SNAP recipients.

Congress also passed bipartisan funding legislation for Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services, including increases in funding for apprenticeship, career and technical education and adult education.

What this shows is that we’re not as divided as our politics suggest – that our leaders can, in fact, set aside petty partisan politics to do what’s in the best interest of working people and businesses. But that requires more than just talk. It’s not enough to simply talk about workers as America’s greatest asset, we must demonstrate it with meaningful action that leads to measurable results for working families.

This is where the State of the Union comes in. While we don’t expect President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE to make skills training a central part of his speech, he should, at least, acknowledge that we can and must do more to invest in workers. Even more importantly, he needs to ensure that his upcoming budget request reverses the drastic cuts to workforce, education, and human services programs that we’ve seen in previous budget proposals.

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According to President Trump’s own White House Council of Economic Advisors, U.S. investments in skills training lags behind virtually all other developed countries. Funding continued to be slashed for state job training grants by 40 percent since 2001. As a result, businesses are struggling to find skilled talent and workers are left without pathways to advance their careers. We can’t compete if we aren’t willing to make the necessary investments in our workers and businesses.

That means, first, Congress and the White House should work together to increase federal investments in workforce, career and technical education, and adult education programs.

Second, we should invest in industry partnerships that create apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs. Industry partnerships, as the name suggests, are partnerships between businesses, human services providers, and workforce and education systems. Small- and medium-sized businesses often lack the resources to establish apprenticeships. And workers need help accessing the training, child care, and transportation they need to succeed in these programs. These industry partnerships help ease those burdens for businesses and workers.

Reps. Suzanne BonamiciSuzanne Marie BonamiciDeVos defends controversial guidance on transgender students Overnight Energy: Ocasio-Cortez rolls out Green New Deal measure | Pelosi taps members for climate panel | AOC left out | Court reviews order for EPA to ban pesticide Ocasio-Cortez: ‘I truly do not’ believe Pelosi snubbed me on climate change panel MORE (D-Ore.) and Drew FergusonAnderson (Drew) Drew FergusonGOP lawmaker under fire for displaying 'racially offensive' book passage in office Why the state of skills training should be a big part of the State of the Union Scalise taps Rep. Drew Ferguson to serve as House GOP deputy whip MORE (R-Ga.) are gearing up to re-introduce the PARTNERS Act, which establishes a grant program to support nascent apprenticeship programs.

Finally, we’ve got to modernize our federal higher education policy, which was designed to expand access to traditional full-time students seeking two- or four-year degrees. This approach doesn’t serve today’s students – many of whom already work full- or part-time jobs and are in pursuit of a license or certification that improves their prospects for employment.

For instance, people who attend short-term training programs aren’t eligible for Pell grants, even though many of those programs equip workers with the skills they need to enter, re-enter, or grow in the labor market.

To President Trump’s credit, his last budget request included a recommendation to expand Pell grants to short-term programs. The Department of Education has also been supportive of this concept. If the Trump administration truly wants to deliver on that commitment, they should get behind the bipartisan JOBS ACT, which expands federal Pell grant eligibility for those working students who choose to enroll in high quality, short-term credentials, licenses, or certificate programs that lead to good jobs. And there are plenty of those programs around the country.

California emergency medical technicians (EMT) program, for example, can meet licensing requirements after completing 170 hours of training.

Students attending Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC) can complete a Technical Competency Area (TCA) in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration after completing 480 hours of training.

Imagine the single mom working the night shift as a waitress while also training to be a medical technician. Imagine the veteran who served multiple tours overseas and is now working to get a certification in air conditioning and refrigeration. Now imagine us as a country continuing to deny these individuals the opportunity to receive a Pell grant simply because they don’t have the luxury to attend college full-time.

Americans who work hard, want to learn a skill to get a better job and earn more money, should be rewarded – not punished. And no one should have to go into debt for an expensive four-year college degree just to get a good job or be respected in our country.

This shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s a common sense, American issue. And less party, more country, more common sense are exactly what we need right now.

Americans are working harder than ever. it’s time for Washington to work even harder to ensure every worker in every industry has the skills to succeed, access better-paying jobs, and grow their careers.

Andy Van Kleunen is the CEO of National Skills Coalition.