Marty Walsh, President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. labor secretary, said at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that he would seek closer ties with the U.S. Education Department (ED) and other federal agencies to better coordinate education and workforce development opportunities.
The Boston mayor told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that in his discussions with its members leading to the hearing, each one — whether Democrat or Republican — noted the importance of job training.
During the hearing, several lawmakers said there are areas that ED and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) could work on together more closely. Walsh agreed.
“When it comes to job training, you have to work across agency lines,” which includes DOL, ED, Commerce Department and other agencies, he said.
K-12 and colleges, too
Various sectors of education also should work together better, especially in helping students explore careers and providing various paths toward good-paying occupations, Walsh said. K-12 and higher education have the infrastructure to maximize job training opportunities. He noted Boston’s relationship with Bunker Hill, Roxbury, Massachusetts Bay and other community colleges to provide job training, and the city’s work with high schools to offer students internships and summer jobs in industries such as high tech and financial services, among others.
“Having those crossovers need to happen,” Walsh said.
In response to a question about creating more training opportunities for the trades, Walsh noted that not every high school student knows what they want to do after graduation.
“When I was 17, I didn’t really know what my passion was,” he said, noting he went into the trades because that’s what his father did.
That’s why it’s important to create opportunities for high school students to explore various education and career paths, he said. Developing such an infrastructure will take bipartisan support in Congress and working with ED on policies to support it, Walsh said. He floated the idea of creating a task force to examine how to best develop a workforce for an economic recovery.
Role of community colleges
Thursday’s hearing had the same friendly tone as Wednesday’s confirmation hearing of Miguel Cardona for U.S. education secretary. Walsh was asked questions about minimum wage, safe working conditions, right to join unions, retirement plans and protections, childcare, job training and more.
Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who said he would support Walsh’s nomination, asked him what role community colleges play in the workforce system, noting the mayor’s program that covers tuition at local community colleges for qualifying Boston public high school graduates.
The city created the program in 2015 during a prosperous building boom, which helped fund it, Walsh said. The idea was to help low-income graduates continue with their education.
“We need to do more with colleges, community colleges all across America, to help train the workforce of the future,” he said.
Walsh emphasized that not everyone is ready for college right after high school, and often those individuals return to higher education whether to get a degree or training for a career. Walsh said he dropped out of college after a year and a half for a construction job and later returned to complete his degree.
“Creating opportunities through these pathways is really important, and I think community college can be a real asset to the American workforce,” Walsh said. “And it can be a real asset, quite honestly, to companies as well.”
Views on free tuition
Burr followed up by asking whether community colleges should be free for everyone.
“If we could do it, it would be great,” Walsh said. “It’s something we should be planning for and trying to get to.”
Burr then asked what such a free-community college “mandate” would do to city budgets.
“I don’t know if you federally mandate it,” Walsh said, but cities, states and the federal government and also employers should invest more in developing pathways to careers other than just through four-year colleges, including community colleges and workforce development programs.
“Everyone has a different path in life, and not everyone is going to take advantage of a college or community college,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s really important for us to focus on job training programs and strengthening those job training programs to make sure that we have real outcomes.”
“We have to continue to build those pathways into the middle class,” he added.
Women in particular
Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray emphasized throughout the hearing the pandemic’s effects on employment, especially for women and women of color. One in four women are considering “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce largely because of a lack of available childcare, she said.
Walsh noted the importance of coordinated efforts to help those who are particularly struggling during the pandemic. He noted Boston’s Building Pathways, a pre-apprenticeship program for people of color and women, that he helped to create.
The HELP Committee may approve both Walsh and Cardona next week. It has scheduled an executive session meeting for February 11, with both nominees listed on the agenda.