March 20, 2003
CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET FOR THE U.S. GOVERNMENT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2004CONTINUED
Ms. CANTWELL. Mr. President, I rise at this late hour to address an amendment that will be offered tomorrow dealing with the issue of workforce training. I applaud both of my colleagues from New Jersey for being here at this late hour to articulate a variety of needs in Superfund cleanup and infrastructure.
I would like to address an issue about our human infrastructure and our investment in job training and education at a time when we have in the Northwest are experiencing some of the highest unemployment in the country, over 7 percent in the States of Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, and a very high average national unemployment rate.
The question we are debating on the floor this week is how do we move forward with a budget resolution and what should our priorities be? I am here tonight to advocate that our priorities should be about a program that will help put people back to work by making sure they have the skills that are necessary in today's economy.
While we hear a lot about the high unemployment, we also know from employers that they can't find the skill level that they are looking for in the workplace among the employees out there today. Why do they say that? We know for a fact that there are thousands of jobs in our State in the health care field that cannot be filled. There are thousands of jobs in the Information Technology field, but people can't be hired because the skill level just isn't there. Yet we have 110,000 dislocated workers in my State of Washington who would love to have those jobs.
It is about matching those unemployed workers with job opportunities that employers would like to give them. The missing ingredient is funding, as we have in the past, adequate levels of job training dollars to train workers to meet the skills gap.
People consider this issue and think: Isn't this about whether we help an individual worker? And it is. It is about retooling the American workforce. It is about retooling our workforce in an information age economy. But it is also about helping our national economy. Think of it for a second. What happens when you help re-train somebody and they upgrade their skills, as we have done in Washington State?
I know a woman who was working, employed in the timber industry. She went back to a community college, was re-trained, got an Information Technology job, and made twice as much money. That was good for her but what was also good was that firm that hired her found a needed employee to help improve the productivity and bottom line of that company. That bottom line productivity and improvement in that company also helped our local economy. It produced a better output and a better general economy for the State. So by investing in workforce training we are actually helping our entire national economy.
Why at a time with high unemployment, why at a time when our economy is transitioning and we are trying to come up with a budget that will stimulate growth for the future, would we cut such an economic development tool as job training? I know there will be some people tomorrow who will say we are not really cutting programs, instead we are actually just moving the dollars around.
Earlier in this year we also heard that there were carryover funds to fund these job training program. However, my State has spent those dollars. They have actually committed those dollars to retrain people and upgrade their skills. We will hear tomorrow that, no, the money is there. But, what is really happening is that we are actually decreasing the money to fund important programs like the dislocated worker program or adult training program by as much as $678 million dollars. The President FY 04 budget proposal simply transfers dollars from other existing job training accounts and consolidates them into one adult training account under the Workforce Investment Act and calls that an increase. We are really robbing Peter to pay Paul. What I would like to be advocating is that those job training dollars need to be increased beyond prior years. What we should be talking about is, not the 2002 level, but a much higher level in 2004, if we want to reap the benefits of having a fully employed workforce. That should be our goal.
I would even advocate we ought to be looking at the GI bill for job training and education this year as we reauthorize WIA and the Higher Education Act. That is the best way for us to keep our competitive edge in a global economy.
Think about it. What is going to happen? I have been in the private sector. I hired lots of people for a high-tech firm. What is going to happen when you as an employer can't find the workforce because they are not skilled? You don't stop looking. You can't. You have to ship products. You have to develop your services. You go find the workforce wherever they exist. In this case they might be foreign workers.
What we are really saying tomorrow is this: By cutting the workforce dollars by this budget proposal, we are really saying we would rather have foreign skilled workers in nursing, in Information Technology and other professions. Let foreign workers take these jobs rather than helping American workers to fill these jobs.
I don't think that is what we want. We want to put the best foot forward in an economy that is changing, where companies have to compete in a global environment. Any company will tell you that their workforce has to be robust. By robust they mean well educated and ready to shift to new products and services as they meet the competition from other companies in a world that is changing much more rapidly.
Even in the best of economic times, I would say we should be greatly increasing our investment in the workforce. In bad economic times, we ought to be filling that gap in an even much more aggressive fashion, to make sure we do not fall behind and that more of these jobs do not go, either overseas internationally because the skill level isn't here, or to foreign workers who are coming into our country on green cards and filling these jobs because they are the skilled workers.
Tomorrow we have an important opportunity, with this workforce development amendment I will be offering, to say to people in this country that it is not just a tax cut to the wealthiest Americans that will get our economy growing. I disagree with that. But even if you do make some of those tax cuts to those brackets, you have to be saying to Americans who are unemployed and unable to find work at a time when employers are saying I can't find the workers either, when the health care industry is saying there are thousands of nursing jobs to be filled or there are thousands of Information Technology jobs, just give me the skills and we will hire them. We need to be making that investment.
So I hope that my colleagues will join me tomorrow in supporting this very important amendment, to make the right priorities and the right decisions about where our workforce, our economy needs to go in the future.