Urban Innovation

Commerce Secretary Pritzker Launches the Communities that Work Partnership

April 29, 2015  • Institute Contributor

Above, watch the full conversation with Secretary Pritzker and Walter Isaacson.

The Aspen Institute welcomed Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker to launch the Communities that Work Partnership, a program of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program Workforce Strategies Initiative funded by the US Department of Commerce. Sec. Pritzker sat down with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson to discuss the Partnership, workforce development, and how best to prepare young people for 21st century manufacturing jobs.

As Assistant Secretary for Economic Development Jay Williams pointed out during his opening remarks, Sec. Pritzker has, “for the first time in the history of the Commerce Department, made workforce development a key focus of the Department.” Sec. Pritzker explained that this move was important “because our job is to try to set the conditions for American business to thrive. Because if American businesses are thriving, they will create jobs, and our economy will grow… So it’s a pretty simple formula. Without a workforce that has the skills that are in demand in an ever-changing economy, the formula doesn’t work.”

As a new era of data-driven, automated manufacturing develops, that formula requires new systems. Prior to the creation of this Partnership, workforce development had been pursued in a disjointed, siloed manner. “If you’re a university president, you tend to meet with other university presidents. Business leaders meet with business leaders. There is no place for ecosystems to come together,” Pritzker explained. “Nowhere can those communities share best practices, document best practices, and then share them throughout the United States.” She believes the nation can no longer afford to pursue the older “train and pray” model where colleges and universities simply hope that their curricula sync up with the needs of local businesses.

“All workforce training is local,” Pritzker said. “We know that. It’s not something that can be driven nationally. And it needs to be driven by the demand of business. What do businesses need today, and what will they need over the next five, ten years in terms of skillsets from the workers in that community?” Therefore, the Partnership will gather senior local leaders from industry, government, community colleges, and universities to translate those needs into new models of education, skills development, and credentialing. These models will form the foundation of a set of best practices that can then be implemented across the nation.

Sec. Pritzker cited South Carolina as an example of the kind of success the Partnership aspires to. Describing the state as a “mecca for auto manufacturing,” Sec. Pritzker said, “There’s a real partnership between the universities, the community college, the auto manufacturers, and the state government. And the auto manufacturers have really led by saying here’s what we need.” Consequently, South Carolina now hosts BWM’s biggest factory in the world, which has also benefitted other local manufacturers and state unemployment rates.

Along the same lines of President Obama’s call for free and universal access to community college, Sec. Pritzker feels that community colleges are “the natural place to go. The goal has been to have training offered at the community college to reflect the demand of the local community …. Let’s be honest,” she went on to say, “businesses do about 80 percent of the workforce training in this country, so what we’re talking about is the 20 percent that’s necessary to get someone ready to be job-ready.”

She pointed to Chicago as a successful case study of such fundamental training partnerships. Pritzker recalled that “the business community has teamed up with the community college to say, ‘Here are the skills that we need…Partner with us, help us produce folks that are capable.’” And businesses were even willing to share intellectual property and training materials with those community colleges in order to improve skills development among students.

Twenty-first century manufacturing is vastly different from what many people imagine. Instead of many workers on the floor of a steel manufacturing plant, for example, today a handful of workers sit before banks of monitors that display data from automated systems. Modern skills such as data analysis, information technology, and robotics are necessary for success in this new, modern mechanical age. For the first time since 2009, US manufacturing output is increasing, and almost 900,000 new jobs have been created. If American workers are to remain the most productive in a world that is propelled by constant evolution of technology, programs like the Communities that Work Partnership will need to drive the evolution of workforce development.