U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta touted the strength of the nation’s economy on Monday, but called on schools to put more emphasis on practical workforce education to address a “skills gap” that leaves some good jobs unfilled.
Acosta spoke to about 600 people at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch at the Kravis Center.
“The American economy is incredibly strong,” Acosta said, with more than 2.3 million jobs added since President Donald Trump took office and a 4.1 percent unemployment rate that’s the lowest since December 2000.
But Acosta said there are also about 6 million unfilled jobs, in many cases because skills taught by the education system don’t match the skills demanded by the workplace.
“Job creators from across the country are saying we have these open jobs but we don’t have individuals to fill them. And these are good family-sustaining jobs – nurses, IT support specialists, construction workers, welders, web developers, vital jobs that require skilled indivuals,” Acosta said.
“Schools and government have built up walls between workforce education and traditional education,” Acosta said.
Acosta called for educational institutions to incorporate more apprenticeships or on-the-job training, similar to what’s already typical for teachers, doctors and nurses.
“Could you imagine being a teacher without going through a student-teaching experience? A doctor without having done rounds at a hospital or learning how to suture? A nurse without having met any patients during your education?” said Acosta, suggesting a similar educational model for other fields.
“Education is a great equalizer and it takes many forms – higher education, vocational education, apprenticeship programs, workforce education…Saying that any one form is better than the other is not what America is about and is a disservice to those individuals who choose one path or a second path or a third path,” Acosta said.
Miami native Acosta is one of several South Floridians in Trump’s Cabinet. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer live in Palm Beach, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson lives in Palm Beach Gardens.
Acosta was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 2005 to 2009. In that time his office — led by then-Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kastrenakes, who’s now a circuit judge — prosecuted Palm Beach County commissioners Tony Masilotti, Warren Newell and Mary McCarty and West Palm Beach city commissioners Jim Exline and Ray Liberti on corruption charges. McCarty was in the Forum Club audience Monday.
“I thought those prosecutions were very important…because they have to do with voter confidence in our system of government,” Acosta said. The county set up an Office of Inspector General in response, Acosta noted. “I’m gratified that Palm Beach County stood up to the challenge and established the office.”