Labor secretary in W. MI: Worker shortage unprecedented

Kent County

CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The U.S. economy is the victim of its own success, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta pointed out during a visit to West Michigan Wednesday.

“Our economy nationwide is so strong. We’ve created 5.4 million jobs in the last two years,” Acosta said while visiting a Lacks Enterprises facility on Kraft Avenue SE.

“We have more open jobs that we have people looking for jobs. That’s never happened,” he added.

That’s a problem for just about everybody in business these days, especially the skilled labor-intensive manufacturing industry.

While the economy is strong, companies like Lacks Enterprises struggle to keep enough workers on the floor.

So when Lacks’ training director had the attention of the labor secretary, she didn’t waste a moment.

“We talked a lot about the importance of strong community partnerships,” said Gabrielle Calkins.

Calkins says the problems she deals with at Lacks is more about retaining employees in an economy where just about everyone is hiring.

“If they decide the location’s not right, or the wages aren’t right, or the benefits aren’t right, or they feel like they want go down the road for a little bit more money… it’s really easy to jump right now,” she explained.

Acosta said the federal government has identified a possible solution.

“We’re focusing on apprenticeships. And apprenticeships are earn-and-learn opportunities,” he explained.

Acosta says federal government funding has helped create about a half-million apprenticeship programs, like the one between Lacks and Grand Rapids Community College.

Another $150 million in grants is on the way to colleges that receive matching funds from the industries they’re training workers for.

The labor secretary says high school graduates aren’t the only focus.

“More than two-thirds of new workers are coming in off the sidelines — individuals that weren’t working previously,” Acosta said.

He also touted the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Trade agreement, the Trump administration’s replacement for NAFTA awaiting action by Congress.

Despite critics who say the agreement lacks enforcement power, Acosta says the deal would benefit U.S. autoworkers competing against cheaper Mexican labor.

“Forty to 45% of auto content has to be made by workers that are making at least $16 an hour. And so that means that lower wage labor in Mexico is less able to shut out American workers who are incredibly productive,” Acosta explained.

Acosta was in West Michigan as part of a statewide tour of manufacturing facilities to promote the international trade agreement.

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