Last Week, the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources held its first hearing in a series entitled “Jobs and Opportunity: Perspectives on the Jobs Gap.”
In the wake of historic tax reform, we finally have an economy that is firing on all cylinders. This is great for American businesses and families, but already companies are struggling to find workers. At the same time, there remain millions of Americans without jobs. This disconnect between employers’ increased demand for workers and the millions of Americans still on the sidelines is known as the Jobs Gap. Last weeks’s hearing focused on creative ways local organizations and employers are working to help close the jobs gap in an effort to get Americans back to work and add to our booming economy.
Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Adrian Smith (R-NE) explained why closing the jobs gap is so important:
“Addressing the jobs gap is about accessing economic growth and opportunity for those on the sidelines of the American workforce. This is particularly important given the healthy labor market and low unemployment rate we are seeing as a result of businesses creating jobs and expanding after enactment of the new tax law.
“We know when individuals and parents work fulltime, the poverty rate drops to just 3 percent. We know when workers are matched to employers, with the supports provided by programs under this subcommittee – such as child care, case management, and transportation – that work, and the American Dream, can become a reality for more Americans.
“What’s different now is a strong economy, fueled by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This isn’t about charity or government programs. We will hear from our witnesses that there is a strong business case, meaning it is in the best interest of their business, to invest in building the workforce.”
Connie Wilhelm, the Chief Executive Officer at the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, testified at the hearing about a program her association started for exactly the reason Chairman Smith described: to help companies be able to continue to grow as they face a labor shortage.
Her association partnered with Arizona correctional facilities to provide training in construction trades to inmates nearing their release date. The best part of programs like these is that they’re win-win. Companies gain access to a strong labor pool of hardworking individuals and incarcerated men and women are given the purpose and stability of good jobs, reducing recidivism.
Toby Thomas, the president of Austin Electric – one of the companies that is a part of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona – said that they began working with Connie simply because they needed workers. In his testimony, he spoke about the program and working with formerly incarcerated individuals:
“For us it was an easy sell. They’re healthy and willing to try our trade.
“So many of these inmates that I’ve had interaction with over the last 18 or 24 months – the biggest thing was just that they wanted somebody who believed in them. Most of the inmates we’ve hired, they’re not bad people. Let me rephrase that, all of them are not bad people. They’ve made some poor choices in life. I think the best way to serve them is to give them that belief that they can do it.”
Brian Potaczek demonstrates the success of the training programs at the Arizona Department of Corrections Employment Center as a now a full-time electrician at Austin Electric. Mr. Potaczek spoke to the members of the Committee about how this program and his employment at Austin Electric has changed his life:
“It’s given me a sense of hope. It’s given me a family that I didn’t have at the time, friends, motivation, inspiration, success. I’m sitting here today – I never thought I would be here. You could’ve told me eight years ago ‘you’re going to be sitting in that chair.’ And I would have told you absolutely not.”
Congressman David Schweikert (R-AZ) – who represents Toby and Brian’s district – asked Mr. Thomas:
“When you have an environment that desperately wants to give you a job, why did you have such difficulties? Why did you have to move to this level of creativity? What is your environment like? Tell me about the jobs that are looking for workers.”
Mr. Thomas responded:
“We’ve created this environment with younger generations that without a college degree you have no chance of success in life. So I think that there’s this feeling towards construction for example or against the skilled trades that it’s substandard – if you will. And when we started our training program in mid-2015, one of the biggest challenges we had was simply finding people who were interested in the skilled trades. So for us finding a population that was more than willing to come learn was a great success.”
Congresswoman Jackie Walorski (R-IN) echoed Mr. Thomas’s concerns that many young Americans are left behind because of the widely-held belief in the U.S. that a traditional four-year degree is necessary for success. She said:
“Sometimes we put too much pressure on kids to go to a four-year university right out of high school – whether they are ready or not. We imply that anything less is failure. This mindset does more harm than good.”
In Walorski’s questions to Heather Terenzio, a witness from Boulder, Colorado who started the first-ever U.S. tech apprenticeship program at her software company, Walorski spoke about the importance of encouraging young Americans who feel they have “failed” because they didn’t fit into a traditional mold:
“The power of human connection: and if someone comes alongside that disengaged person – coaches them, believes in them – all that doubt washes away and they can be successful. So first I want to applaud you, for bringing people into an industry that to people from the outside looking in probably looks like an unclimbable mountain for somebody without a degree. I want to ask you about the untapped talent pools that you look at. How do you engage them?”
Ms. Terenzio replied:
“The beauty about software development is that once you are in the industry no one really cares where you went to school and what your background was. Our office in Boulder is across the parking lot from the Google office and we have a theory that people who come to our office feel supported, see people all around them who came from the jail system or the foster care system – all different kinds of backgrounds – and they are succeeding with us. So it’s very much a culture of ‘If they can make it, so can I.’ I think it gives people that motivation, to know that other people with different kinds of backgrounds can also make it in this kind of a career.”
Similar to Mr. Thomas, Ms Terenzio spoke about why an apprentice-style training program works well within her business:
“We are a for-profit company, so we are pretty motivated to get people integrated and productive as fast as possible.”
Chairman Smith closed the hearing by thanking the witnesses for sharing their unique and creative strategies for closing the jobs gap.
CLICK HERE to preview our next hearing in the series with Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta.