The Obama administration continues to make workforce education a key plank of its economic recovery plans.
Passed by Congress in February, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus package, included $3.5 billion for job training. Much of this money was set aside to address immediate employment needs and will be funneled through state and local government agencies.
Speaking at a White House press conference May 8, President Obama announced additional steps to help unemployed workers by expanding opportunities for continuing education.
“If we want to come out of this recession stronger than before, we need to make sure that our workforce is better prepared than ever before,” he said. “Right now, someone who doesn’t have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does. And so many of the Americans who have lost their jobs can’t find new ones because they simply don’t have the skills and the training they need for the jobs they want.”
Citing the latest job reports, which showed the U.S. economy shed an additional 539,000 jobs in April and the unemployment rate rising to 8.9 percent, the president outlined steps to allow unemployed workers to go back to school and retrain for new jobs.
The administration’s plan revises unemployment rules to allow unemployed workers to continue to receive unemployment benefits while going back to school. Current rules specify they must be actively seeking a job to receive benefits, forcing many job seekers who want to return to school to give up their benefits.
In addition, Obama called on Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to work with universities and colleges and trade and technical schools to expand the Pell Grant Program, allowing schools to consider a student’s current financial situation when making grant awards. In many cases, qualification for grants is based on prior year’s income, making it difficult for recently released workers to qualify. The maximum grant would also be increased from $500 to $5,350 in July. The departments of labor and education also have set up a new Web site, opportunity.gov, to serve as a clearinghouse for additional information.
“The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country so that it’s no longer just a time to look for a new job, but is also a time to prepare yourself for a better job,” Obama said.
The unemployment system should be “not just a safety net, but a stepping stone to a new future. It should offer folks educational opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have, giving them the measurable and differentiated skills they need.”
The president also tasked Jill Biden, an adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to lead a campaign to raise awareness of education opportunities available at community colleges.