From "Wait and See" to "The Next Opportunity"
This morning the April employment numbers were released, showing that our economy lost 539,000 jobs, bringing the total number of jobs lost since this recession began to 5.7 million. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis opened her statement by saying that the numbers "reflect the urgent needs of Americans, and they are the focus of this administration's immediate action and relief." But she closed noting that, "As the comprehensive plan of the administration takes hold, we have begun to see signs of recovery. We've seen the financial system and the housing market stabilize. New jobs are being created as ground has broken on thousands of new infrastructure projects in all 50 states."
And so with the tremendous task of turning around the economy on a national scale ongoing, the President announced a new set of programs to help make the task of individuals turning around their own lives a little bit easier. The President made clear that, in reality, fighting unemployment and creating a 21st Century economy nationally would come down individuals finding individual jobs, and better yet find training for the kinds of jobs that would last for decades:
Now is the time to put a new foundation for growth in place -- to rebuild our economy, to retrain our workforce, and re-equip the American people. And now is the time to change unemployment from a period of "wait and see" to a chance for our workers to train and seek the next opportunity -- so when that new and better day does come around, our people, our industry, and our entire country are ready to make the most of it.
As he often does, the President discussed how the ideas he had in mind related to somebody he knew. In this case it was Maureen Pike, who Maureen lost her job as a physician's receptionist, but kept afloat with unemployment benefits and used Pell Grants to become a registered nurse through community college. The President talked about her example as enabled by unique rules in the state of Maine:
But today, far too many Americans are denied that opportunity. Let me just give you an example. Say an unemployed factory worker wants to upgrade his skills to become a mechanic or a technician. In many states, that worker might lose temporary financial support if he enrolls in a training program. And to make matters worse, unemployment might mean he can't afford higher education, and he likely won't qualify for federal help simply because he may have made a decent salary a year ago, before he was laid off.
Well, that doesn't make much sense for our economy or our country. So we're going to change it. First, we'll open new doors to higher education and job training programs to recently laid-off workers who are receiving unemployment benefits. And if those displaced workers need help paying for their education, they should get it -- and that's why the next step is to make it easier for them to receive Pell Grants of the sort that Maureen used.
I've asked my Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and my Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, to work closely with states and our institutions of higher learning and encourage them not only to allow these changes, but to inform all workers receiving unemployment benefits of the training programs and financial support open to them. And together, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor have created a new website called opportunity.gov -- I'll repeat that, opportunity.gov -- to help workers discover and take advantage of these opportunities.
And together, these changes will increase access to education and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of workers who've been stung by this recession -- people just like Maureen. And like her, many may take advantage of one of America's underappreciated assets -- and that's our community colleges. These schools offer practical education and technical training, and they're increasingly important centers of learning where Americans can prepare for the jobs of the future.
And that's also why I'm asking Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor who's devoted her entire life to education -- and who happens to be married to the Vice President -- to lead a national effort to raise awareness about what we're doing to open the doors to our community colleges.