Obama budget would spend big on job training

Proposes more than $7.7 billion for apprenticeship, training programs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress both believe the United States' job-training system is in need of an overhaul. That's where the consensus ends.

In his budget request for the coming fiscal year, Obama proposes more than US$7.7 billion in new spending to set up new apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs and restore funding to existing programs that have been cut in recent years.

His plan also would take limited steps to streamline the government's tangle of 47 overlapping job programs, though it falls far short of the aggressive reforms that Republicans want.

The emphasis on job training in a budget that includes few other spending hikes could help Obama's Democrats appeal to voters who remain anxious about the slow pace of job creation even as the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.6 per cent from a high of 10 per cent in 2009.

The proposal would devote new resources to a system that often struggles to match workers with available jobs, especially the "middle skill" positions that provide a livable wage.

Obama described the system as a "maze of confusing training programs" in his 2012 State of the Union address. Congress was supposed to update the system a decade ago but has not yet agreed on how to tackle the problem.

Like many other elements of Obama's 1,656-page budget, his job training proposals have only a slim chance of becoming law.

Congress is unlikely to approve the billions of dollars in additional spending that Obama is seeking, and Republicans who control the House of Representatives want to scale back the system, not expand it.

Still, the budget serves as a map of Democratic priorities as lawmakers gear up for the November congressional elections.

Taking a page from countries like Germany, Obama would spend $6 billion over four years to double the number of apprenticeships in the United States through a new program that pairs community colleges with employers.

He would spend $1 billion next year to provide 600,000 jobs for low-income young people through a Summer Jobs Plus program, and $2 billion on a new program to train 1 million people who have been out of work for more than six months.

Another new program would eliminate the difference between programs for those who lost their jobs due to foreign competition and those who were laid off for other reasons. It would cost $3.7 billion next year.

He also would restore $750 million that has been cut from existing programs.

Obama's proposal contains some reforms to the existing system. He would dedicate $140 million in new spending to improve the 2,500 local employment centers the government funds through the Workforce Investment Act.

He also has directed Vice President Joe Biden to lead a review of the system to yield broader reforms.

That did not impress Republicans, who have lined up behind a dramatic overhaul of a system they termed a "bureaucratic nightmare" in the budget plan they passed last year.

"The president wants to make an existing maze of programs even more costly and confusing. Spending more money on broken programs will not provide the support our most vulnerable children, workers, and families desperately need," House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline said in a prepared statement.

A Republican bill that passed the House on a party-line vote last year would eliminate 35 training programs and give local employers more input in how the system operates. The bill has stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Nearly all of the government's 47 job-training programs overlap with other federal services, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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