Emphasizing skills training as key to a growing middle class, President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced $600 million in competitive grants to spur creation of targeted training and apprenticeship programs to help people land good-paying jobs.
"When it comes to training our workers, not all of today's good jobs require a four-year college degree," Obama said. "But I promise you, there's not a job out there that's going to pay a lot if you don't have some specialized training."
With the economy recovering and unemployment still stubbornly high at 6.7 percent, Obama portrayed skills training as critical to maintaining the U.S. competitive edge in a global economy that has rapidly changing technology and competition from countries like China.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who traveled aboard Air Force One with Obama, said businesses spend $400 billion a year to train their workers. She said a goal of the new programs is to encourage employers to make that training available to others.
Obama announced two programs, the larger of which will put nearly $500 million toward a job-training competition run by the Labor Department and designed to encourage community colleges, employers and industry to work together to create training programs for the jobs employers need to fill. Applications were to be available starting Wednesday and due by July 7.
The program is part of an existing competitive grant program for community colleges that train dislocated workers for jobs.
A priority will be placed on partnerships that include national entities, such as industry associations, that pledge to help design and institute programs that give job seekers a credential that will be accepted by employers across a particular industry.
Under the second program, scheduled to begin in the fall, the Labor Department will put an additional $100 million in grants toward rewarding partnerships that expand apprenticeship programs.
This competition will focus, in part, on partnerships that create programs in high-growth fields, such as information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing, as well as programs that provide college credit or industry-wide skills certification.
Obama said learn-on-the-job apprentice programs should be expanded because 9 out of 10 apprentices end up in jobs that pay average starting salaries of above $50,000 a year.
Obama said "jobs know no borders" in a 21st century global economy where companies can lure the best-educated and most highly skilled workers from anywhere in the world. He said countries like Germany, China and India know this and are "working every day to out-educate our kids so they can out-compete our businesses."
"America's got a choice to make. We can do nothing, which is the strategy that some folks in Washington seem to have," he said, in a clear jab at Congress. "Or we can do what we've always done best. We pull together, we fight back and we win."
Obama was joined for the announcement by Vice President Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native who was born in Scranton. Biden flew up ahead of Obama and was in place to greet him on the airport tarmac after Air Force One landed in Pittsburgh.
Neither program requires approval by Congress because the money has already been authorized for spending. In response to stiff resistance to his agenda from Republican lawmakers, Obama has made it a goal this year to take smaller steps on his own, without support from Congress, to benefit the economy, workers and others, and Wednesday's announcements fit that script.
Obama spoke after touring a classroom at the Community College of Allegheny County West Hill Center with Biden and Pritzker, where students in a job-training program demonstrated various mechanical systems, including one that opens and closes garage doors.
"Any employer is going to be lucky to have you guys," Obama said.
At Obama's request, Biden is leading a review of federal job-training programs to make sure they do what they are supposed to. His report is due at the end of July.
House Republicans have complained that Biden's effort is a waste of time because the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, has identified redundancies in a comprehensive review it completed in 2011. They have urged Obama to press his allies in the Democratic-controlled Senate to vote on a House-passed measure that proposes to streamline dozens of duplicative job training programs.
"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, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.