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Thursday, June 4, 2009

 1:47 PM 

Education secretary unveils grant program for displaced workers

MILWAUKEE -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today announced a $7 million national grant program aimed at helping displaced workers pursue second careers.

The money will be awarded on a competitive basis beginning in September and will range from $300,000 to a maximum of $750,000 per program over a three-year period.

Gov. Jim Doyle and Manpower CEO Jeffrey Joerres were also on hand at Milwaukee Area Technical College to announce the grants, which will be used for tutoring, counseling and other services intended to "remove the financial barriers" that stand in the way of displaced workers re-entering the job market, Duncan said.

The department will begin taking applications immediately.

Duncan stressed the important role that technical schools will play in helping the sagging economy recover, especially in a state like Wisconsin that has been hit hard by layoffs.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate peaked at 9.4 percent in March and still hovers near the 9-percent mark, the highest rate for the state in 26 years.

"We need to find a way to transform and reinvent our workforce, and higher education is the answer," Duncan said.

Duncan called the technical college system "an undervalued gem" and indicated that tech schools like MATC will be absolutely essential in providing the sagging economy with skilled talent to fill trade jobs and turn things around.

The grant money will be allocated competitively to maximize its impact and make a true difference for people seeking education for a second career.

"This is real money that will have a real impact," Duncan said.

Joerres added that with the availability of "in-place" jobs like teaching, electrical and other trades that can't be outsourced, the qualified talent produced by tech schools will be in large demand.

"Of the 10 toughest jobs for businesses to fill, nine of them employ skills taught at technical schools," Joerres said. "They get those people from places like MATC."

He also indicated that the perception of attending technical schools and pursuing the fields they teach needs to change, noting that parents have tended to push their children toward liberal arts schools that offer difficult placement opportunities post-graduation.

"We need to bring back the importance and the prestige of skilled trades," Joerres said.

The grant money will help a state facing a $6 billion budget deficit as the state government aims at protecting the education system from more massive cuts.

While Doyle spoke of sharing sacrifices during the current budget crisis and having to make many tough cuts, he believes that education is the way out of the recent economic situation and stressed that the education system cannot be undermined by the shortfall.

"We can't say to hard-workers in our higher education system that we don't have a place for you, and to people who have been laid off and need to make a living to come back in a couple years when we can do something for you," Doyle said.

Doyle also praised the Obama administration for allocating critical stimulus funds for education, saying that Wisconsin would have had to cut 10 percent to 15 percent of the state’s basic education infrastructure without the funds allocated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"I'm thankful that we have people in Washington working so hard on education and making it such a priority," Doyle said.

The grant falls in line with the Obama Administration's assertion that education will be a critical factor in emerging from the country's economic plight. Several members of Obama's cabinet are touring the Midwest to visit communities affected by the fallout of the auto industry.

"We will educate our way to a stronger economy," Duncan said.

When asked about the sagging auto industry and its local impact with plants in Kenosha and Janesville closing, Duncan provided no specifics, but added that they are doing everything they can to aid those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

GM recently shut down production at its Janesville, while 800 jobs could be lost at the Chrysler plant in Kenosha next year. In both cases, state officials have been trumpeting the possibility that both plants could end up making a come back.

"It's important that we do not give up on anyone," Duncan said of the autoworkers who lose their jobs.

- Ryan Cardarella

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