U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta admitted in his visit to Casper on Monday that he had only been to Wyoming once before.
That first trip consisted of a quick jaunt to the affluent confines of Jackson. This time around, as the guest of Sen. Mike Enzi, Acosta has already gotten more than the tourist’s view of Wyoming, roving through the prairie on a multi-day tour of the state’s manufacturing and industrial sector.
Monday morning began with a journey to Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle coal mine, located just south of Gillette. Later that day, the pair set off for Casper, rocketing down the highway in a caravan of black sport utility vehicles to tour the Wyoming Contractor’s Association’s training facility on the outskirts of town: a common stop for D.C. dignitaries on their trips into the state.
For Acosta, the trip was a brief respite from D.C., where he is facing calls for his resignation after a judge ruled that he broke the law in covering up a sex scandal by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who has been accused of molesting more than 100 underage girls, according to court documents.
First, he stopped for a several-minute conversation and photo-op in a classroom for the facility’s clinical medical assistant program – a room of silicone limbs and bags filled with fake blood for students to practice on. Students needed 30 successful “pokes” before they’re allowed to enter the field, an instructor told Acosta, and – with partnerships at area hospitals – the seven-week course boasts an 89 percent placement rate for a more-than living wage job in Wyoming.
“They can check them out for free, and then they hire them,” the instructor said.
Next, Acosta visited a class where a number of pupils in their late 20s and 30s were working toward obtaining their commercial driver’s licenses, a field with a disproportionately high vacancy rate that can pay thousands of dollars a week. Next, he checked out a heavy equipment simulator and, after an unsuccessful attempt to move pixelated dirt across a work site, Acosta walked across a sandy back lot to watch students at the training center try it for real. Finally, he walked with Enzi to an acrid-smelling steel building filled with the sounds of whirring machinery and Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” blaring over a stereo to the side.
“You’re all going to have a guaranteed job,” he told the students. “People want welders badly.”
The visit came on the same day that a CNN poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe the economy to be “in good shape.” Acosta was more than willing to share the reasons why that perception might exist. Wages are up. More than half a million apprenticeships have been created in the past two years – “a half a million great jobs,” Acosta told the Star-Tribune in an interview Monday.
And, “for the first time since we’ve been keeping numbers,” Acosta said, there are more open jobs than there are people looking for jobs – an additional footnote to record-low levels of unemployment seen across the country this past quarter.
“Our economy over the last two years has created more than 5 million jobs, and that’s really incredible,” said Acosta. “And if you look at where those jobs are being created, they’re in those industries where people work with their hands – in mining, in construction, in manufacturing. And that’s a change, that hasn’t happened in over a decade.”
People need to be trained for those jobs, however – the reason Enzi invited Acosta out in the first place.
“It’s to see what we’re doing here, so when they’re doing rules or regulations, or trying to get us fit into legislation, we can,” Enzi said in an interview at the Casper facility. “This is one of the most helpful people for Wyoming – for the industry, for the safety, for the small businesses – that we have in Washington.”
What has happened in Washington for programs like those seen at the WCA, however, has seemed counter to the purpose of building up Wyoming’s workforce. A recent budget proposal put forward by the Trump Administration, for example, proposes a 10 percent budget cut to the Department of Labor, a fair proportion of which is meant for career training programs.
This is nothing new, a quick review of past budget policies suggests. The Trump Administration has proposed millions of dollars in cuts to workforce development programs, which have been panned by left-leaning groups like the Center for American Progress.
According to Acosta, the cuts actually fit into tangible workforce development strategies to help encourage the private sector to become more involved in workforce development, something he noted when questioned about whether the proposed cuts to the Labor Department budget hinder its mission.
“There’s absolutely a strategy,” Acosta said. “I think it’s important to not ask how much money we’re spending, but instead to ask if we’re spending the money wisely. For example, the Department of Labor gets fee money from H1-B visas, but we want Americans to have those jobs. So what we did at the Department of Labor was look at where those jobs are going, and they’re going to coding, they’re going to health care, and they’re going to advanced manufacturing.”
Acosta said that in the coming weeks, the Labor Department would be announcing $150 million in new grant opportunities for those three areas that would require applicants to find a private sector partner to “buy into” their program, thereby ensuring its success.
“Here’s why that matters: if there’s a business partner involved, then the educational institution is going to make sure they’re teaching the skills that are demanded by that business partner, because otherwise that business partner won’t put up the money,” said Acosta. “Now that business partner is invested in the program, and so they’re going to hire the graduates of that program.”