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U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

The American economy continues to improve while too few reap the benefits, requiring more pathways into the middle-class, said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. He shared these thoughts while speaking at a Greater Baltimore Committee breakfast March 16.

According to Perez, the U.S. has seen 60 consecutive months of private sector job growth with about 12 million jobs created during that period, and is currently experiencing the lowest unemployment rate since the spring of 2008. There are, he said, 5 million jobs open and awaiting someone to fill them.

“We clearly have a wind at our back,” said Perez, “but I’ll be the first to say, and the president will be the first to say, that this is not the time to spike the football because we all know that there are a lot of people who haven’t been lifted by this rising tide.”

Perez noted that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total earnings of all full-time minimum wage workers in the country. He added that it is time for the country to invest in its human capital infrastructure by building a skills super highway whose destination would be middle-class jobs.

In order to build the skilled workforce Perez referred to, multiple pathways beyond our reliance on four-year college degrees are needed. Among those pathways, said Perez, should be trade apprenticeships. “We need to redouble our efforts in the apprenticeship context, because I have seen in my travels across not only the country, but the world, that apprenticeship is a proven route to the middle-class,” said Perez. He noted that the youth unemployment rate in Germany is less than half that of the U.S. A big reason for this, he said, is German teenagers can sign onto apprenticeships around age 15 or 16, apprenticeships enjoy the same stature as college degrees.

Apprenticeships have been devalued in the U.S., according to Perez, who referred to apprenticeships as “the other college, except without the debt.”

The secretary’s comments come at a time when Del. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) has been pushing for legislation in General Assembly to require contractors to pay the full cost of apprenticeship programs for those apprentices under their employ. McCray says that efforts like the one contained in his bill – House Bill 370 – are essential to rebuilding the middle-class that was once the backbone of Baltimore City. “ is how you can still make $60, $70, $80,000 with a high school diploma, with a driver’s license, with one year of algebra, with being 18 years of age, and this is how our city and our state was built,” said McCray.

McCray was grateful Perez added his voice to the issue of apprenticeships and how this pathway can help expand the middle-class. Too often, McCray said, conversations about alternative paths to economic prosperity are confined only to those segments of the population who might benefit directly from programs such as apprenticeships, segments whose voices seldom have the impact of the Secretary of Labor.

“There enough people, there enough voices talking about opportunities for our young men, our young women, in our neighborhoods and how it can be doubled down, just like Secretary Perez said, rebuilding the middle-class in reference to apprenticeship opportunities.”

ralejandro@afro.com