Why workforce development — and worker training — is becoming top issue for Sherrill

Congresswoman: We have obligation — and opportunity — to think about what future workforce needs to look like

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill wants to create job training programs for those involved in advanced manufacturing, high-tech industries, life sciences and other areas. She wants to create job training programs suitable for people getting four-year degrees, two-year degrees and certificates — and for those serving apprenticeships.

Most of all, she wants to create job training programs that reach the ultimate goal: Preparing people for actual jobs.

“Not all training and retraining programs are equal,” she said. “We need to refine our programs so that we are training the workforce for the jobs of the future, not just having them throw money at programs and have them come out of them not trained for the modern workforce.

“We have an obligation — and an opportunity now, as far as retraining — to think about what the future workforce needs to look like.”

Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee — and the subcommittee on higher education and workforce investment — has made workforce development a primary focus.

Last week, she was named a co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition’s Future of Work and Capitalism — and she introduced the Expanding Pathways to Employment Act, which would create a long-term funding commitment to workforce development and post-secondary education programs.

“During the last recession, we saw that, as our economy opened back up, many people were able to go back into their jobs, but there were many people that were not able to return to their previous jobs,” she said.

“So, we really have to look carefully at what is working, and make sure we ensure our workforce gets trained and then gets a good job at the end of it.”

Sherrill points to the advanced manufacturing training programs at the County College of Morris in her district as a success story.

“These jobs require a high level of training,” she said. “And, because technology is constantly advancing, this is not just, get a two-year or get a four-year degree and you’re set for life.

“These programs need to keep going back to these businesses to provide more training as time goes on. That’s what I’m working on — making sure all of the support we need is out there.”

Sherrill, who was elected to her second term in Congress last November, spoke with ROI-NJ last week about a number of workforce development issues. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: You recently were named co-chair of a coalition studying the future of work and capitalism. That sounds as important as it gets. Walk us through what the group wants to accomplish.

Mikie Sherrill: It is a big challenge, but I think it’s time we address so many of the economic needs that our country has. When I think about the future of work, I’m thinking about issues that are already here, like automation, and issues we need to be concerned about, like the growing wage gap.

I believe deeply in capitalism, but we also want to make sure that everybody can get a great education, everybody has great training opportunities and apprenticeship opportunities, so that they can enter the workforce and get a good job.

ROI: Speaking of equality, the pandemic clearly has had a different impact on women than men.

MS: Absolutely. Being a mother of four, I know the issues. So many of the problems for women in the workforce really came to the fore. Women were the first to have to leave the workforce, as they had child care issues at home. And many of them have been the last to return, because of continuing child care issues.

Before the pandemic, we knew that we had about two kids for every one child care spot. Now, we’re estimating we have about five kids for every spot. These are really critical issues. It’s something that has gone unaddressed for far too long. So that’s a critical issue.

ROI: New Jersey not only has a diverse population, but a diverse workforce — high tech, health care, public, private and, of course, union. How does that impact your thinking?

MS: It’s a very interesting dynamic, but I think it’s a great thing. We are lucky to have this in New Jersey. For every group that you mentioned, we want to make sure that we are providing the right kind of education and training for their role in the workforce of tomorrow. Whether they are getting a Ph.D., a two- or four-year college degree, or serving an apprenticeship, we need to make sure that training is going to result in having a great job on the other side of it.

ROI: Your district is centered in Morris County, but it includes parts of Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties. It is one of the most affluent districts in Congress — but it also has some of the highest costs of living. Talk about creating a workforce that fits in your district.

MS: I’ve been thinking about how to make a robust and strong economy in North Jersey since I got into Congress. That’s why it is so important to make sure that we get the Gateway Tunnel, because it’s so critical to our economy.

How do we make sure that we address the affordability problems in North Jersey? That’s why I’m working to get rid of the state and local tax deduction cap. That’s an affordability problem in our district that also puts downward pressure on our ability to invest in the best public school system in the nation.

Business leaders come to New Jersey because we have the best-educated workforce in the nation — that’s critical to high-tech firms. We just need to make sure that we have the workforce to continue to support all of the opportunities and innovations we have going on.