Stabenow worried about shortage in tradespeople

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing — U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said Michigan is facing such a shortage of skilled tradespeople that Congress should provide federal matching funds to help community colleges and businesses provide training to more students.

Addressing employers’ inability to fill openings in the trades and other technical fields is a major priority, she said, along with emphasizing American jobs and protecting funding for the Great Lakes. The third-term Democrat, who is up for re-election next year, held a half-dozen events across the state in recent days to discuss workforce issues.

Stabenow told The Associated Press in a phone interview that the pendulum has swung too far toward emphasizing four-year college degrees over vocational training. The federal government should help schools retool so they have the equipment they need for career and technical education, she said.

She also favors measuring high school students’ success not solely by seeing how many advance to college but also gauging if they get other job skills not requiring a bachelor’s degree.

Stabenow plans to soon reintroduce a bill — which previously stalled but may be changed — to expand a program that lets community colleges offer free training for growing employers that add new jobs. The schools can recoup their costs by capturing the new employees’ income taxes.

Offering a federal match equivalent to the state’s foregone tax revenue would substantially boost the number of workers and businesses that can participate, she said.

“It’s based on something that’s being done in Michigan and several other states,” Stabenow said. “We’re now looking more broadly at ways we might add some more flexibility so it’s not just community college, so we could add some other choices for students as well.”

She said 3.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs will become available in the next seven years, but there will be enough skilled workers to fill only 1.5 million, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

“It’s both a great opportunity for people and it’s also an urgent need for businesses,” Stabenow said. She pointed to a small manufacturing shop in Alpena that had enough business to add a second shift but could not find qualified employees.

“That story can be told all over Michigan,” she said. “If we’re going to grow the economy, we have to address this.”

At the state level, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has often focused on boosting the number of tradespeople. He has showcased apprenticeships and other career opportunities while also budgeting more for training, technical education and career planning.

Congress returns from a recess this week.

Stabenow said she thinks lawmakers will stop President Donald Trump’s proposal to kill funding for the Great lakes Restoration Initiative, an ambitious push to fix problems that have long bedeviled the world’s largest surface freshwater system — from invasive species to algal blooms and toxic sludge fouling tributary rivers.

She also is concerned about Trump and congressional Republicans’ pledge to overhaul the nation’s complex tax code. She said she supports simplifying it but added: “If we’re going to do tax reform, I want it to benefit small businesses and middle-class families, not those who’ve already gotten the majority of the tax benefits.”

After the collapse of the GOP’s health care legislation, Stabenow recently proposed a bill to let people age 55 to 64 — who often face higher health costs — buy into Medicare, the federal health insurance program for those 65 and older. She stopped short of backing calls by some fellow Democrats for universal, government-funded health care.

“A great place to take the next step on better health care is age 55,” she said.