Rep. Levin pushes for more job re-training

May 17, 2011 Issues: Trade

Companies, communities and workers who benefit from a beleaguered federal job training initiative that assists those hit hard by U.S. free-trade policies were the subject of a “summit” gathering Tuesday in Sterling Heights, where officials discussed the need to save the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

The TAA job training program, which was expanded in 2009 but chopped in February by the House, now offers fewer benefits for firms and workers who suffered due to foreign competition and the outsourcing of jobs overseas. Funding for job retraining was slashed from $575 million down to $220 million.

About a dozen local and regional officials, with U.S. Rep. Sander Levin serving as moderator, held a roundtable discussion at Fitzpatrick Mfg. Co. in Sterling Heights, a grinding and milling company that has benefited from TAA.

After losing about half of their contracts during the Great Recession of 2008-09, Fitzpatrick Mfg. has revitalized itself and diversified its focus with the help of the federal training program and the TAA regional center based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The city of Sterling Heights, which recently received a $391,000 TAA grant, has also served as a Fitzpatrick partner.

“The program does work. All these people here are pillars of that program. It … is a team effort,” said Kevin LaComb, business development manager for Fitzpatrick.

While congressional Democrats worry that the program, after five decades, could be targeted for elimination by budget-cutting GOP lawmakers, Michigan remains at the top of the TAA recipient list.

Michigan had 33,000 workers, the most of any state, that received retraining through the TAA last year. The $83 million provided by Washington was also the highest of the 50 states.

In Macomb County, 2,300 displaced workers have been retrained over the past 28 months.

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans say Congress must cut hundreds of programs to reduce the record federal deficit and flatten the long-term projections of an unsustainable federal debt. TAA was sent back to its pre-2009 levels on Feb. 12 by GOP lawmakers who said the private sector, not the government, should take the lead role in job training.

John Bierbusse, who oversees job training programs in Macomb County for Michigan Works!, said that TAA goes hand-in-hand with free-trade policies by assisting those who become collateral damage in the move toward globalization.

“The people we’re training have lost their job primarily due to federal policy,” Bierbusse said.

“Distressed firms” such as Fitzpatrick receive multi-year assistance after suffering huge losses from outsourcing. The industrial firm’s 2010-13 allocation has financed a thorough web site upgrade, which led to two major new customers, and completed a series of certifications required to bid on defense industry contracts.

Along with its constant emphasis on employee training, the manufacturer also plans to make logistical changes that will streamline operations and put them in a position, with the help of a consultant, to land defense contracts and some work in the medical field.

Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool said that the city’s business “incubator,” which assists start-up companies, can use Fitzpatrick Mfg as a business model.

According to Macomb Community College President Jim Jacobs, too many educators and elected officials across the nation have declared without substantiation that the U.S. has entered a post-industrial era. Jacobs, an economist, said local manufacturers rely upon community colleges to provide curriculum that produces a skilled workforce. “If you didn’t have that pipeline,” he told the 10 TAA summit participants, “the whole community will suffer.”

MCC is playing the lead role in a 16-college consortium of schools from six Midwest states that are seeking an $18 million grant from the Department of Labor.

The TAA program is divided into four subsections: for workers, firms, community colleges and communities.

On Monday, the White House threatened to hold up final passage of three long-awaited free trade agreements – pacts negotiated with South Korea, Panama and Colombia – unless Congress restores the TAA program to its 2009 levels.

“As you go around this table, this group of people reflects the need for strong public-private partnerships,” said Levin, a Royal Oak Democrat, who urged them to spread the word about TAA’s benefits throughout their communities. “We need to convey to our constituents what these efforts mean. The regeneration of manufacturing in this state will require partnerships and a vital effort on the local level.”