Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker urges more government funding to close skills gap

PSP Capital chairman Penny Pritzker said that fixing the skills gap and strengthening our workforce is "the defining issue of our time" in her interview Monday with CNBC.

PSP Capital chairman Penny Pritzker said that fixing the skills gap and strengthening our workforce is “the defining issue of our time” in her interview Monday with CNBC.

When addressing the issue of retraining workers for 21st-century jobs, Pritzker outlined solutions to solving this problem through more investment in apprenticeship training for the next generation of workers while improving the social safety net for the current one.

Pritzker, the former secretary of commerce, said that our standing when it comes to workforce training ranks among the lowest of OECD countries, putting the United States on par with members Chile and Mexico.

“Europe spends seven times as much as we do on workforce training. So we’ve got some work to do,” Pritzker said.

During her interview held the Aspen Ideas Festival, Pritzker applauded the Trump Administration’s apprenticeship program, but suggested that there is not enough money to fund the program properly to achieve its goal of creating 5 million apprentices.

Related Story: The Apprentice: White House edition

Despite the criticism of the ambitions of the Trump program, Pritzker said that bipartisan cooperation must be achieved to eliminate the specter of obstructionism between the political parties. By working across the aisle politicians can help lessen economic “angst” within the workforce driven by automation, she said.

“We absolutely need to press forward and try to find a compromise,” Pritzker said.

penny pritzker on CNBC
TAP TO WATCH: Penny Pritzker on CNBC from the Aspen Ideas Fest.

In a nod to this political detente, she fielded a question from Sen. Rob Portman R-OH, who asked her if she thought that career and technical education should be extended to middle school-aged students.

She agreed that the earlier students are exposed to the types of 21st-century careers is better as students should be better informed about what is out there for them. But students knowing the demands of employers, especially those seeking “middle-skilled” employees, should be accompanied by a less expensive path through a community college or vocational instruction, she added.

She pointed to skills training in Delaware, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Colorado as guideposts for successful programs.

Prtizker said that focusing on training and rehabilitating workers is only one part of the process of securing the American economy. If federal and state governments fund what she named a “21st-century safety net,” 50 million Americans in the “on demand” economy more “flexibility” in case of unemployment or illness.

“We need to make sure their benefits move with them so they don’t find themselves in trouble,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker noted that the Republican Senate’s proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare could undermine the social safety net and exacerbate workers’ angst.

“We need to make sure the workforce has certainty,” Pritzker said, “Healthcare is one part of economic certainty. We need to make sure to fix the problems that exist in Obamacare, but also not take away benefits so folks know they can be covered when they have a problem.”

On the subject of immigration, Pritzker noted that more opportunity can be found in achieving a bipartisan solution with a comprehensive reform package. She said that Democrats have accepted a moral responsibility to care for immigrants but are waking up to the “economic opportunity” which is presenting itself.

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