Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 | 6:33 p.m.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis stressed the importance of job training and education in the rebuilding of Nevada’s economy during a public forum Thursday near North Las Vegas.
Nevada — which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 11.6 percent — must diversify its economy by returning to the basics, Solis said.
“We can’t afford to be a consumption-oriented economy anymore. We have to start producing again,” Solis said, addressing about 50 community leaders and members at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. “I still think we have an edge, but we need to remain competitive, and the only way to do it is to foster that manufacturing base back here in the U.S.”
Solis touted the return of some 500,000 manufacturing jobs to the U.S. economy during the past three years, the first time that’s happened since 1989, she said. Much of the job growth has been in growing fields such as renewable energy, she said.
However, to prepare Nevada’s workforce to enter those emerging fields, Solis said the state must revamp its education system, which was recently ranked by KidsCount report as being dead last in the nation.
“Education is absolutely essential to repair our economy,” said Solis, a former community college trustee. “In order for us to be competitive, we need to have more highly-skilled and trained individuals with credentials and licenses.”
That’s why Solis said she supported President Barack Obama’s initiative to invest about $8 billion into job-training programs and vocational high schools intended to reorient the U.S. economy toward science and technology fields.
“Businesses can’t wait,” Solis said. “They want people right now who are highly-skilled and trained.”
The White House is hoping to push at least two million Americans into job training programs at community colleges and “one-stop career centers” across the country, Solis said. Southern Nevada has four such career centers.
Businesses would receive tax incentives to hire graduates from these training programs, and the federal government would help community colleges connect with businesses to help prepare students for emerging fields such as healthcare and green technology, Solis said.
However, investments to train students and unemployed Americans to enter green fields could be seen as controversial, Solis contends.
The Obama administration has been criticized for giving multimillion-dollar subsidies to renewable energy companies in Nevada such as Solyndra, which went bankrupt, and Amonix, which closed its North Las Vegas manufacturing plant earlier this year.
There is always a chance of a company failing, but that doesn’t mean the whole industry is bad, Solis said.
“I really believe that’s the future for us,” Solis said. “Solar panels and geothermal have taken off here. You do have an advantage.”
U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, agreed with Solis, commenting during the public forum that Nevada ought to keep investing in green technology.
“This recession has hit us in a most disproportionate way,” Berkley said. “Nevada has an abundance of sun and geothermal energy. Renewable energy is an economic necessity, an environmental necessity and, frankly, a national-security necessity.”
Rancho High School history teacher Isaac Barron said he appreciated Solis’ emphasis on science, math and technology education. The magnet school has an aviation program that recently built a solar-powered plane, Barron said.
However, Las Vegas schools need better math and science programs to compete with schools on a global scale, Barron said.
“We’re falling behind in education. We’re not catching up,” Barron said. “We need to have a real, profound and meaningful discussion of what our education system should look like.”
Substitute teacher Ty Weinert came to the forum to see how her husband, Jerry – a union carpenter who doesn’t have a college education – can change careers.
Like many Las Vegans, the Weinert family was hit hard by the recession.
When the construction industry dried up, Jerry lost his job and a six-figure salary, and he had to move temporarily to Montana to find work. Ty lost her job running her own business – the Potato Valley Café, which went belly up in 2010 after five years serving popular baked potatoes to downtown denizens.
As a result, the Weinerts were forced to file for bankruptcy and lost their house last year, Ty said.
Jerry – who has a temporary job as a carpenter – is now looking for a new career as an architect, Ty said. After learning about the one-stop career centers, Ty said she’ll try to encourage her husband to use that resource.
“It’s hard to come back from that,” she said. “But hopefully we can work hard and come back.”