In remarks today about educational aid for the unemployed, President Barack Obama mentioned a letter he got from an Oklahoma veteran:
“This morning, we learned that our economy lost another 539,000 jobs in the month of April. While it’s somewhat encouraging that this number is lower than it’s been in each of the past six months, it is a sobering toll. The unemployment rate is at its highest point in twenty-five years. It underscores the point that we’re still in the midst of a recession that was years in the making and will be months or even years in the unmaking; and we should expect further job losses in the months to come.
“Although we have a long way to go before we can put this recession behind us, the gears of our economic engine are slowly beginning to turn. Consumer spending and home sales are stabilizing, and construction spending is up for the first time in six months. Step by step, we are making progress.
“Of course, that’s no solace to those who have lost their jobs, or to the small business owners whose hearts break at letting long-time employees go. It’s no relief for those who continue to send out resume after resume, then wait for a call. It’s of little comfort to the families who wake up wondering how they’re going to pay their bills, stay in their homes, or put food on the table – the Americans I’ve met in towns across this country, or whose letters I read at night.
“They’re letters of struggle but also of service to others. They’re stories of heartbreak, but also of hope. It’s the story of the small business owner in California who wrote that as long as her employees depend on her, “I will not give up.” The veteran in Oklahoma, who wrote, “We’ve all got a long way to go. But we’ll stick together and get through this.” And the mother in Michigan who wrote that she and her husband can’t make ends meet, but as long as they have their jobs, they’ll work 24 hours a day to send their children to college. She ended her letter by saying, “I’m not writing to tell you about my troubles – I’m writing to please ask you to act quickly to help all the people like me.”
“Such hard-working Americans are why I ran for President. They are the reason we have been working swiftly and aggressively across all fronts to turn this economy around; to jumpstart spending and hiring and create jobs where we can with steps like the Recovery Act. Because of this plan, cops are still on the beat and teachers are still in the classroom; shovels are breaking ground and cranes dot the sky; and new life has been breathed into private companies like Sharon Arnold’s. And already, 95 percent of working Americans are seeing the tax cut we promised show up in their paychecks.
“We’re moving forward because now is not a time for small plans. It’s not a time to pause, to be passive, or to wait around for our problems to fix themselves. Now is the time to put in place a New Foundation for growth – to rebuild our economy, retrain our workforce, and reequip the American people. And now is the time to change unemployment from a period of “wait and see” to a chance for our workers to train and to seek the next opportunity – so when that new and better day does come around, our people, our industry, and our entire country are ready to make the most of it.
“Now, if we want to come out of this recession stronger than before, we need to make sure our workforce is better prepared than ever before. Right now, someone who doesn’t have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does. And so many of the Americans who have lost their jobs can’t find new ones because they simply don’t have the skills and training they need for the jobs they want.
“In a twenty-first century economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, education is the single best bet we can make – not just for our individual success; but for the success of our nation as a whole. The average college graduate earns 80 percent more than those who stopped after high school. So if we want to help people not only get back on their feet today, but prosper tomorrow; we need to take a rigorous new approach to higher education and technical training. That starts by changing senseless rules that discourage displaced workers from getting the education and training they need to find and fill the jobs of the future.
“Today, I’m announcing new steps we are taking to do exactly that – to give people across America who have lost their jobs the chance to go back to school today to get retrained for the jobs and industries of tomorrow.
“The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that it’s no longer just a time to look for a new job, but to prepare yourself for a better job. That’s what our unemployment system should be – not a safety net, but a stepping stone to a new future. It should offer folks educational opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, giving them the measurable and differentiated skills they need to not just get through these hard times – but to get ahead when the economy comes back.
“That’s what Maureen Pike did. She lost her job as a physician’s receptionist, but she didn’t lose hope. She took it as an opportunity to upgrade her skills and earn an associate’s degree in nursing from a community college – and today, she works as a registered nurse.
“The only reason she could afford to do that while supporting her children was because the state of Maine allowed her to keep her unemployment benefits and study with help from a Pell Grant. Pell Grants cover tuition at almost every community college in the country, and unemployment benefits can help those studying to gain new skills to support their families at the same time.
“But today, far too many Americans are denied that opportunity. Say an unemployed factory worker wants to upgrade his skills to become a mechanic or technician, for example. In many states, that worker might lose temporary financial support if he enrolls in a training program. To make matters worse, unemployment might mean he can’t afford higher education, and he likely won’t qualify for federal help simply because he may have made a decent salary a year ago.
“Well, that doesn’t make much sense for our economy or our country. So we’re going to change it.
“First, we’ll open new doors to higher education and job training programs to recently laid-off workers who are receiving unemployment benefits. And if those displaced workers need help paying for their education, they should get it – that’s why the next step is to make it easier for them to receive Pell Grants. I’ve asked my Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and my Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, to work closely with states and our institutions of higher education and encourage them not only to allow these changes, but inform all workers receiving unemployment benefits of the training programs and financial support open to them. And together, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor have created a new website – Opportunity.gov – to help workers discover and take advantage of these opportunities.
“Together, these changes will increase access to education and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of workers who’ve been stung by this recession – people just like Maureen. And like her, many may take advantage of one of America’s underappreciated assets – our community colleges. These schools offer practical education and technical training, and they’re increasingly important centers of learning where Americans can prepare for the jobs of the future. That’s why I am asking Dr. Jill Biden – a community college professor who’s devoted her life to education – to lead a national effort to raise awareness about what we’re doing to open the doors to our community colleges.
“So this is a good start. But it is only a start. These steps are just a short-term down payment on our larger goal of ensuring that all Americans get the skills and education they need to succeed in today’s economy. To that end, I’ve also asked every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. It can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship; but whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And we will back you up with the support necessary to do that and to meet the new goal that I’ve set: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
“And in the weeks to come, I will lay out a fundamental rethinking of our job training, vocational education, and community college programs. It’s time to move beyond the idea that we need several different programs to address several different problems – we need one comprehensive policy that addresses our comprehensive challenges.
“That’s how we will open doors of opportunity and lay a New Foundation for our economic growth – by investing in our citizens. That’s how we have always emerged from tough times stronger than ever before – because of the hard work, determination and ingenuity of the American people. And I am confident that if we summon that spirit once again, we will get through this; we will see our nation recover; and together, we will put America on the path to shared and lasting prosperity.”