Statement of Senator Michael B. Enzi
September 8, 2004
September 8, 2004
Mr. President, the signs are all around us. The economy is getting stronger. The economy has shown 12 straight months of job gains. Last month, payroll employment increased by 144,000 jobs. Nearly 1.7 million new jobs have been created over the past year. The unemployment fell to 5.4% - the lowest rate since October, 2001. We have laid the groundwork for the economic recovery we are experiencing today. We have ensured the presence of more capital in our economy which has led to the creation of more jobs for our workers.
President Bush's economic policies continue to create new jobs and move the economy forward. This all adds up to good news for the American people. We have weathered the storm and are poised to enter a new period of prosperity.
However, I have to caution you about some roadblocks that stand in the way of prosperity for our workers and businesses alike. The first roadblock is a gap between the skills our workforce has and the skills our employers need. The second roadblock is the Democrats' obstruction of legislation that will help close this skills gap. First, I'll talk about the skills gap so you can understand just how damaging the Democrats' obstruction is to our workers and our economy.
It may surprise you to learn that many good jobs in this country remain unfilled because employers can't find workers with the skills they need. According to a 2003 survey by the Center for Workforce Preparation, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, half of the employers reported difficulty in finding qualified workers. The problem is greatest for small employers. Small business – our greatest source of economic growth – can't create jobs if they don't have the skilled workers to fill the jobs.
The gap between the demand for high-skilled workers and the supply will only widen in the future. Looking ahead two years, only 30% of the employers surveyed by the Center for Workforce Preparation believe the skills of their workers will keep pace. This skills gap blocks the pathway to better jobs and better lives for American workers and their families.
This skills gap also threatens the ability of American businesses to compete in a more complex, global economy. When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the Senate Banking Committee, he said that "what will ultimately determine the standard of living in this country is the skill of the people". Why is effective workforce training so important? Because in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, people – their talent and their ideas - make the difference. Human capital is a company's most important resource. The skills and ingenuity of the American workforce will drive our economy in the 21st century and beyond. If we want to keep high-paying jobs in America, our challenge is to equip our workers with skills the global economy demands. We used to manufacture buggy whips. We don't make too many of those anymore. The people that did that had to have new skills.
Unfortunately, the current workforce development system is not effectively equipping workers with the relevant skills. Without any action, technology and other advances will outpace the ability of American workers and business to update skills needed to compete. We must improve the nation's job-training system created under the Workforce Investment Act to better prepare American workers for the good jobs of today and tomorrow. Only a systematic reform of our nation's job-training system will enable American workers and businesses to compete – and succeed - in the global economy.
There is good news. We have a bill that does this. It's a bipartisan bill that reauthorizes and improves the nation's job-training system. It will help retrain workers to fill the jobs needed in this country now and in the future. It will link workforce development with economic development, recognizing that job training and job creation go hand in hand. It will partner the public workforce system with private sector employers – including small businesses – and with training providers to better prepare workers for high-wage, high-growth jobs. And, this legislation will improve access to job training and employment services in all parts of the country. It will help an estimated 900,000 unemployed workers a year get back to work.
The good news is we have bipartisan legislation that does all of this – legislation that passed out of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee unanimously, legislation that passed on the Senate Floor unanimously. Where is the bill now? Here's the bad news. Here's the roadblock. The Democrat's won't let us send this important job-training bill to conference. They're stopping progress by refusing to appoint a conference committee, which is a committee made up of Republicans and Democrats who would meet with the House to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
An important jobs bill – a bill that will help American workers and businesses – is being held hostage to election year politics. If we really care about keeping good jobs in this country, we need to send the job training legislation to conference – and then to the President to become law.
I owe my constituents more than this. I think we all do. We owe the American people an open legislative process, a process they expect and deserve from us. This is not just an academic question of Senate rules and procedures. A bill that would help put Americans back to work or find better jobs now lies in legislative limbo.
I was reminded just how important job-training is to the lives of our workers and the strength of our businesses and communities during a conference held in Wyoming this summer. In June, I attended the Wyoming Summit on Workforce Development. This was a conference designed to teach people how to bring business and jobs to Wyoming. In Wyoming, a lot of our people are leaving the state to find better jobs elsewhere. We know that we have to create the kind of good jobs with good futures that will keep our people in Wyoming. To do that, Wyoming needs workers with skills the new, global economy calls for.
One of the speakers at the Summit was a consultant, Robert Ady, who advises companies where they should relocate or open new operations. According to Mr. Ady, a key location factor for a light manufacturing business is the presence of a qualified workforce. Whether a company decides to open a plant in Cheyenne or China depends upon a qualified local workforce. A skilled workforce can make the difference between success and failure in the new, global economy. It makes the difference for our workers, for our companies, for Wyoming and for the United States as a whole.
Almost 200 business participants from around the state attended the Wyoming Summit on Workforce Development. For Wyoming, having 200 business people in one place at one time is a real accomplishment. It showed the need and commitment our businesses have to workforce development. These 200 business participants – most from small companies - represented at least 200 opportunities for Wyoming workers and communities. They are looking to us to put the tools in place to keep the American dream alive in communities across Wyoming and the rest of the country.
There's an American dream. It's to have a family, have a nice home, and have a good job to support that home and family. Prior to my coming to the Senate, my wife and I owned a small chain of shoe stores. As a small business owner, I saw firsthand the impact that job training can have on achieving the dream. We had an employee – a Vietnam veteran - who went through a workforce training course and ended up managing and then buying two stores from us. He's an example of what you can do with effective job training if you teach workers to dream at the same time.
We have to give workers – and businesses – the tools to turn the dream into reality. Job training under the Workforce Investment Act can turn the dream into reality for millions of American workers. By blocking legislation that improves job training, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are blocking the pathway to new and better jobs for American workers. They are blocking the pathway to prosperity for American families and American businesses.
The job-training bill, known as the Workforce Investment Act, is a central part of a combination of federal education and training programs that provide lifelong learning for the workforce of today and tomorrow. The job-training bill, together with the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Improvement Act which I recently introduced, and the Higher Education Act offer the resources that are needed to help prepare students of all ages for jobs in high-wage and high-skill occupations. In this technology driven global economy, everyone is a student who must adapt to changing workforce needs by continuing to pursue their education. In turn, Congress must ensure that education and job training are connected to the needs of business, including small businesses, now and into the future.
I urge the Democratic Leader to lead, to allow the appointment of conferees to the job training legislation, the Workforce Investment Act. The cost of this obstruction is the loss of important legislative efforts that will be felt by the American people as it harms the integrity of the legislative process itself. I hope our bipartisan efforts on the bill can continue. I hope that regular order is restored to the appointment of conferees so that we can craft the final version of the legislation. If we really want to keep good jobs in this country, the Democrats would agree to send this important bill to conference. Our workers and our businesses deserve this. They deserve more than election year political obstruction. They deserve the tools needed to keep American workers and businesses the best in the world.
I yield the Floor.