by Laura Turner
"It's time to turn our unemployment system into a re-employment system," U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis told delegates at a general session during the Congressional City Conference.
The secretary announced an Obama Administration proposal, the Universal Displaced Worker Program, that would help a million displaced workers secure new employment. The program would also expand federal services to more job seekers.
The proposal would integrate the Trade Adjustment Assistance and Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Dislocated Worker programs, which aid workers who lose jobs due to foreign trade with re-training and re-employment.
"It shouldn't matter whether a layoff is a result of off-shoring, downsizing or failed business venture to those who lose a job through no fault of their own. They should have access to high quality help when it comes to changing careers or finding a job," Solis said.
The proposal includes targeted assistance and skills assessments for all displaced workers, and for those who need to upgrade skills to compete in the new economy, up to $4,000 in training awards.
"We recognize that many unemployed workers are balancing at this time family responsibilities with job training and job searching," Solis said. The new program would provide stipends to help eligible workers care for children or offset transportation costs while training.
The Universal Displaced Worker Program would also provide some cash assistance to ease the burden on workers who must relocate to another city or state to find a job.
For older workers who have spent their careers in one industry, the program would provide modest wage subsidies to ease the transition to new jobs that pay less.
The administration also wants to upgrade and better connect the federally funded one-stop career centers that help 30 million Americans find employment each year.
"Every person seeking job assistance and every business looking for skilled workers should be able to reach a one-stop career center either physically or online. That's why the president is proposing the creation of an integrated American job center network," the secretary said.
The network will unify the 3,000 one-stop centers and their electronic resources - now spread across many websites - under one umbrella and provide a single point of access for both job seekers and businesses looking to hire.
The new displaced worker program would complement the president's plan to fund new partnerships between businesses and community colleges. The administration wants to match what students are learning in school with what businesses are looking for and focus on training for high-growth industries like information technology, health care, advanced manufacturing and renewable energy.
The secretary lauded local leaders for their role in building bridges among businesses, community colleges and organizations in their communities.
The plan would expand these partnerships to recruit and retain employers in cities and towns and create new tax revenue streams.
"People want to do business in places where pools of skilled workers live," said Solis.
Earlier this month, the Labor Department opened a grant competition, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, to help low-income seniors receive work-based training by performing community service in day care facilities, senior centers, schools and hospitals.
This experience can help many of them transition into paid employment, the secretary said.
Solis also called on local officials to help create summer youth employment opportunities again this year.
The administration has already secured commitments for 180,000 summer jobs through its Summer Jobs Plus initiative, but more must be done, particularly in the areas of internships and mentoring.
The secretary updated attendees on WIA reauthorization and expressed concern over proposals in Congress that would repeal programs serving veterans, disabled workers and at-risk youth.
The nation must do more to help returning veterans find good-paying civilian jobs and invest in at-risk and disconnected youth, she said.
Solis called for strengthening partnerships within adult literacy and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs so adults with low literacy can learn to read and write while receiving vocational training.