June 8th, 2011
04:33 PM ET
Washington (CNN)–In a town where the unemployment rate is just above the national average, Louisville, KY native Jason Koerner counts himself lucky to be able to offer his students a pathway to a career.
The part time community college instructor steers a lot of his students to "Big Brown" or UPS, one of the city's largest employers that has also provided a training pipeline to the community.
"The program speaks for itself," Koerner told CNN. "It's pretty alluring." That program is a public-private partnership that UPS developed back in the 1990's. Its cornerstone is Metropolitan College which trains skilled workers, tuition free, and in return students work the overnight shift at UPS's big Next Day Air Operation headquarters in Louisville.
Expanding America's manufacturing workforce is the latest push by the Obama administration that is struggling with a sluggish economy and worsening unemployment numbers. Wednesday, the president took his message to Northern Virginia Community College to announce an expansion of a program aimed at training a half million community college students with specialized manufacturing skills.
"Lighting a spark; that's what community colleges can do," the president said. "That's what learning a new skill or training in a new field can do."
The program called "Skills for America's Future" is basically a public-private partnership whereby community colleges work with business and government to develop "industry-recognized credentials" to educate students. It's similar to the UPS program which itself is now part of the president's initiative.
In addition to the community college training program, the president announced a high school curriculum and an internet site where workers can see how their skills match to job openings across the country.
"The irony is even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers," Mr. Obama told students and business leaders Wednesday in Alexandria, VA. "There's a mismatch that we can close. And this partnership is a great way to do it."
Once upon a time manufacturing was king in America. Not so much anymore. In 1979 manufacturing was the number one job sector in the country. Today it has dropped to fifth.
Still, even with manufacturing growth at its slowest pace in two years, Georgetown University economist Anthony P. Carnevale warns not to write it off. "It's sort of a forgotten giant in the American economy."
Carnevale who is the Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says American manufacturing employs about 14 million people. "You've got the biggest industry in the room. It's declining but remember it's big and there are a lot of job openings."
Manufacturing has declined but not because jobs have gone overseas. Carnevale says it's because productivity and technology have become so efficient. Despite that, he says there is opportunity in manufacturing due to the aging workforce where an estimated 2 million or more workers are expected to retire in the next decade.
The Obama administration wants to seize that opportunity. “We are in a tough fight,” the president said Wednesday. “We've been in a tough fight over the last two and a half years to get past a crippling recession, but also to deal with the problems that happened before this recession - the fact that manufacturing had weakened, the middle class was treading water. I don't think the answer is for us to turn back.”
In Louisville, Jason Koerner says he will continue to recommend his students to the UPS training program. Koerner was one of the first graduates of the program and today continues to work at UPS mentoring new students. "We have been able to reach out to students in virtually all 120 counties in Kentucky [and provide] educational attainment in a state that had been challenged by that in the past," said Koerner.
"It changed my career plan," he says.