With President Barack Obama and other critics assailing the current Congress as the least productive in recent memory, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor traveled to Charlotte on Friday to highlight an issue that has attracted rare bipartisan consent: workforce training reforms.
Cantor, R-Va., joined three of North Carolina’s U.S. House members in an appearance at the sprawling Siemens plant in southwest Charlotte, where they touted the company’s apprenticeship program as an example of the kind of innovation they’d like to see more of nationwide.
They said it was in keeping with the spirit of the SKILLS Act, a reform plan passed by the House. On Wednesday, negotiators from the House and Senate announced that they’d reached a bipartisan agreement that would meld it with similar legislation from the Senate. The senators said they are optimistic it will be signed into law.
At Siemens, Cantor saw firsthand the company’s apprenticeship program, which takes rising high school seniors and puts them in a four-year training program that pays their way through community college while they learn skills on the job.
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It puts them in position for a good-paying permanent job as a Siemens machinist at a time when the company says it struggles to fill those positions.
Mark Pringle, vice president of Siemens’ Charlotte Energy Hub, told the Observer that the company has about 15 open machinist jobs, which usually take three months or more to fill.
“It’s hard to get them,” he said.
Republican U.S. Reps. Virginia Foxx, Robert Pittenger and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina joined Cantor on the visit. Foxx, author of the House bill, said that although the legislation doesn’t increase spending on federal job-training programs, it will streamline them, improve accountability for results and promote education for in-demand jobs such as those Siemens offers.
“We have to change dramatically the way we do things,” Foxx said. “Siemens and the folks in workforce development here in this area really have provided models not only for North Carolina but for the entire country.”
The legislators met several of the 13 machinist apprentices working at the plant.
Hope Johnson, a 2012 Olympic High School graduate, took a break from her job helping make gas turbine parts to tell them her story. She said she’s in her third year of the four-year program, and will graduate from Central Piedmont Community College with an associate degree in mechatronics.
She’ll likely get a full-time job after finishing the program. If she does, she hopes to be making around $50,000 a year by the time she’s 21.
“My future’s set,” she told Cantor, beaming.
“Excellent job,” he replied.
Later, the legislators joined local officials in a panel discussion about the workforce skills gap that leaves companies like Siemens struggling to fill advanced manufacturing jobs.
Cantor asked them about the challenges they face, and what federal officials can do to help.
Steve Partridge of Charlotte Works, a local job-training agency, said many young people see manufacturing as a dirty, sweaty industry filled with greasy machines.
Instead, robots and computers dominate the giant building housing Siemens’ $350 million gas turbine operation.
“As you can see from the tour, it isn’t like that,” added Ronnie Bryant, head of the Charlotte Regional Partnership economic development agency.
Siemens Energy CEO Randy Zwirn said more needs to be done to erase the negative impression young people have about such jobs. He said students don’t have to see taking such jobs as meaning they give up dreams of a four-year college degree.
“These are good, middle-class jobs with skills and benefits,” he said. “We’ve got to emphasize with apprenticeship jobs that these are not (career) ceilings; these are floors.”