U.S. Labor Secretary attends roundtable meeting at TCAT

John Gullion/Citizen Tribune

U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia holds a press conference at the Tennessee School of Applied Technology-Morristown, Tuesday afternoon.

During a trip to East Tennessee, the United States Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia visited Morristown Wednesday afternoon for a roundtable discussion with business and industrial leaders at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology and a tour of the McNeilus Steel facility.

“We are honored to have Secretary Scalia and congressman Roe on our campus today,” TCAT Director Jerry Young said. “The discussion was workforce development. As a vocational/technical college that’s our mission, student success and workforce development. How we can provide training to students so they can move directly into the job market.

“The conversation today is how we’re going to continue with our mission, to get the country back on track, get everybody employed. How are we gonna handle the current job losses? How are we gonna get them trained and get them back into really good jobs. Great conversation. We had multiple business and industry leaders here today.”

In a press conference after the roundtable, Scalia said technical and vocational training will play a key role in economic recovery on the heels of the coronavirus-related shutdown.

“Just months ago, we had an absolute extraordinary economy in this country with unemployment tied with a 50-year low. We located 7 million jobs since January 2017 and wages were rising more quickly for lower paid workers which is why President Trump has called this a blue-collar boom,” Scalia, the son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said. “The coronavirus has presented challenges in a number of ways and forced us to pause our economy. Thankfully, we’re rebounding. I heard good stories here today from local business people about the growth they’re experiencing, the hiring they’re intending to do. We’ve seen that in national job numbers … 7 and a half million jobs back into the economy in May and June.”

Scalia said though there have been success stories; the country needs to remain vigilant.

“We have work to do,” he said. “We know we have to keep at work on this virus, we have to be careful, disciplined safe in the workplace. We’re on the way back… we’ve got the pieces in place.”

While COVID-19 is presenting challenges for employers, Young said educators are also navigating tricky waters in terms of keeping students safe while providing the education they need to enter the workforce.

“The biggest challenge, especially in the situation of COVID-19, is maintaining that social distancing maintaining that safe training environment right now, trying to meet the demand of the jobs coming back,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (TN-1) thanked the secretary for his visit to Morristown and recognizing the work being done in Tennessee.

“One of the things I want to say about our state, I think we’re the only state in the union, we’re not a wealthy state, that provides free community college and technical college for our residents,” Roe said. “The Tennessee Reconnect, that Gov. (Bill) Haslam started, allows someone who is older and loses their job to come back and get retrained which is absolutely critical in today’s rapidly changing workforce.”

Young said it was an honor for TCAT-Morristown to be part of the discussion.

“I appreciated the opportunity for us to have input into what’s going on in our country,” he said.

“I want to thank the secretary for being here today. It’s a real honor to have him here …,” he said. “We really appreciate him being here today and recognizing what we’re doing here in Tennessee.”

Scalia said schools like TCAT-Morristown are playing an integral role in getting the country back to work while many four-year colleges and universities are letting their students down.

“Vocational and technical training is really one of the strengths of our workforce right now,” he said. “Unfortunately our four year colleges often let the students down, don’t graduate enough of them and even those that graduate, when you talk to business people, they feel they don’t have the skills and the attitude sometimes that are needed in the workplace.”

Roe said a key part of the discussion was apprenticeships.

Scalia agreed.

“We adopted a new rule at the labor department to open the way to more apprenticeships which really are a proven way of giving people training on the job,” Scalia said. “They can earn while they learn and they can graduate from those apprenticeship entering into jobs that can average as much as $60,000 a year.”

Before coming to Morristown, Scalia traveled to Knoxville where he highlighted the department’s recent announcement of $90 million in grant funding to help individuals who are exiting the justice system re-enter the workforce.

In a roundtable discussion with leadership from grant recipient Knoxville Leadership Foundation and other community representatives, Scalia discussed effective strategies for supporting re-entry to the workforce of those leaving the criminal justice system. He also visited, with U.S Rep. Tim Burchett (TN-2), the Knoxville Leadership Foundation’s KnoxWorx program, which helps individuals gain valuable training and credentials that lead to jobs.

In his remarks, Scalia also addressed the way the Department of Labor, through OSHA, is guiding businesses and industries in ways to keep employees relatively safe as they operated through the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve now issued guidance for about 17 different industries,” Scalia said. “Steps to take to stay safe in the workplace. We’ve also had extensive interaction with businesses with union officials and others on steps to be taken. And we are conducting inspections. We are receiving complaints.

“I will say this: I’ve never seen the American people, American workers or American business owners as focused on health and safety in the workplace as they are right now. I’m very impressed by the steps that I see business and workers taking.”