Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis Workforce Innovation Fund Press Conference

Press Conference

By:  Hilda Solis
Date: June 14, 2012
Location: Pittsburgh, PA

Thank you, President Cohon, for that introduction, and thanks to everyone at Carnegie Mellon for being such gracious hosts. I also want to recognize President Belechak for his leadership with the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, and I want acknowledge President Bloomingdale who is here representing the area's great local unions. I'm so proud of organized labor here in Pennsylvania for creating some of the best apprenticeship programs anywhere in the world.
Finally, thanks to the employers and innovators who are here with us today. This morning, I had the pleasure of meeting so many of you and seeing your exciting work. Pittsburgh has an all-star group of start-ups exploring new frontiers of science and medicine and doing life-saving work: from detecting and treating ulcers early to using robotics to treat autism and dementia.

I also learned about the Space Robotics Lab and got a fascinating look inside the 21st century space race. It's a race that used to pit nation against nation, but now, for the first time, the race has been joined by university labs and start-up companies, including one that began right here on this campus. I met this morning with leaders of Astrobotics and learned about their moon rover space exploration vehicle. Wouldn't it be incredible if CMU launched the company that wins Google's race to put a robot on the moon?

For so many reasons, this is the perfect venue for me to talk about my department's work to promote innovation: innovation in the products America makes, innovation in the systems we use to make them and innovation in how we train our workers to perform the hi-tech jobs of a 21st century economy.
This is actually my second time in Pittsburgh in the last two months. I've come back because leaders here are doing some of the best thinking in America about new ways to transform ideas into action, about new ways to turn ingenuity into commercial success and good-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians.

In April, I gave a talk at Community College of Allegheny County about the "skills mismatch" that exists in our labor force today. The numbers are startling. There are more than 12 million Americans looking for work right now, yet 3.7 million jobs remain unfilled across this country. Think about that. We talk a lot in Washington about creating new jobs, but it's so important that we think critically about steps we can take to fill jobs that are already open. Too many displaced workers are having trouble getting job offers, and too many companies are having trouble finding workers with the specific skills they need.

The Department of Labor's mission could not be any clearer: To speed our economic recovery, we must quickly train up our workforce to fill jobs that are open today and that will be open tomorrow. But it's a complicated challenge, because in this age of globalization, the things we're producing and selling in local communities are changing.

The hard-working people of Pittsburgh understand this better than most. You've lost steel jobs, but now the city has come together to replace them with a boomlet in "meds and eds"--jobs in healthcare, education, technology and robotics. Pittsburgh is a city on the cutting edge of technological innovation and on the cutting edge of union-led workforce training. We're here to merge these strengths, and to help Pittsburgh pioneer a new apprenticeship model to help hundreds of new companies quickly bringing their ideas to market. If we're successful, Pittsburgh can export its success to communities across the country, and American entrepreneurs everywhere will win. That's why I've chosen Pittsburgh to make national news today.

I'm pleased to announce that my department is awarding our first-ever federal grants under our Workforce Innovation Fund. This fund exists to harness the spirit of innovation that is represented here and apply it to our public workforce system. Today, we're awarding a total of $147 million to 26 grantees across the country to pioneer new workforce training models. This includes $3 million to the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board here in Allegheny County to create a new apprenticeship model called "Making it in America."

This effort involves collaboration between local unions, startups, industry leaders, workforce development professionals and universities like CMU. Our goal is to help our innovators at the earliest stages of product development, commercializing the best ideas from our best universities. While they're in the start-up phase, this model will get them thinking about all aspects of building a manufacturing operation, including the workforce.

Our Registered Apprenticeship leaders will be on the ground floor of those discussions helping to create new pathways for workers to "earn while they learn." This model is good for workers and good for business.

Our goal is to be forward-looking, so new technology can be developed in concert with worker training programs that meet companies' specific needs. This way, when the design phase is complete, they won't lose any time in trying to find a pool of trained workers capable of bringing their product to market, because those qualified local workers will already exist. In today's dynamic economy, the first to market often owns the market. We know this is true. So our innovators can't afford to play catch-up.

The good news is that some of the most effective union apprenticeship programs in the nation are right in your back yard. They are run by the AFL-CIO, the Steelworkers, the Machinists, the Operating Engineers and many other local unions. Organized labor knows how to train workers quickly and effectively. They know how to develop new curricula to help workers adapt their existing skills to new manufacturing processes. And they know how to instill those critical "soft skills," so the start-up culture and the worker culture can get on the same page early and stay there.

So the charge we've given to our grantees under the Workforce Innovation Fund is simple. It's the same charge Thomas Edison gave to a team of inventors roughly a century ago: He said, "There's a way to do it better. Find it!" That ethic is alive and well here in Pittsburgh.

I want to mention three innovations that really stood out in the grant application here. The first is "start-up boot camps." These are intensive learning sessions where entrepreneurs come and learn from organized labor about manufacturing methods workers are already using. If we're going to create game-changing technology, it makes sense to learn from workers who are already involved in its real-world application. This will allow our start-ups to quickly scale up their technology and begin generating profits and jobs.
The second innovation is what CMU calls their "Window on Innovation" meetings. Carnegie Mellon held the first such meeting last week with its exceptional faculty and 25 union leaders. The labor leaders came to this campus and received a wide-ranging briefing on future technology that's coming down the pipeline. This way, they can anticipate future training needs and stay a step ahead of the curve in designing training programs. I understand you plan to have at least two of these meetings every year. I applaud your forward thinking.

And the third innovation is called "virtual halls." Historically in the labor movement, when workers complete a project, they would gather in the union hall and wait for the next job. But "virtual halls" will allow workers to go online, see what jobs are opening up and learn what new skills they need to fill those jobs.

We're so excited about the workforce innovations happening here. We're excited because we've seen them work already in this community.

Optimus Technology is a biofuel technology company that began as a local start-up. They created a new retrofit fuel system for diesel engines. Their tanks allow heavy equipment to run on anything from algae oil to vegetable oil to animal fats. The company can convert bus and truck fleets, bulldozers, locomotives, tractors and tugboats. They're all about promoting fuel choice. They're all about allowing their customers to power vehicles with cleaner-burning fuels--fuels that preserve our environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But once this breakthrough technology was developed, Optimus then had to train service technicians to perform maintenance and upkeep on the engines and new fuel systems. So they partnered with Western Pennsylvania's Operating Engineers' Joint Apprenticeship Program, and the operating engineers trained workers on 50 different pieces of heavy equipment.

The CEO told us that the apprenticeship model had an incredible influence on the success of his company. He said that having a well-trained workforce encouraged him to press forward and take that calculated risk that every entrepreneur must take. It's the risk that the long-term benefits of his invention would outweigh the initial risks of bringing his technology to market. I'm told that Optimus is now working with Giant Eagle to retrofit its truck fleet. We wish this company continued success.

It's our hope that the new "Making it in America" apprenticeship model can recreate more successes stories like this one and that this model can be exported to communities across America. That's the promise of the Workforce Innovation Fund.

So I'll close today by telling you where we plan to take this Fund going forward. I mentioned that today's awards are the first round of grants under this program. For Round 2, the Department of Labor will be awarding up to $20 million to pilot what we're calling our "pay for success" model. It represents a new way of financing positive workforce investment results. It shifts the burden of investment risk away from the American taxpayer, so the government is funding services that are proven to work and will achieve measurable results that can be replicated

We have to be smart about training our workers and helping our entrepreneurs succeed. And in this time of budget cuts, we have to send our limited resources to places where they will do the most good--places like right here in Pittsburgh. So thank you again to all of our partners for everything you are doing and will do to help build a 21st century economy that's built to last. Thank you.