As part of a renewed push to create opportunities for the long-term unemployed, President Obama on Friday touted the success story of a once-homeless Iraq War veteran who turned his life around through an electrician apprenticeship.
When Erick Varela, a heavy-equipment operator who served as a combat infantryman in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq, left the Army in 2008, he returned home to Manteca, Calif., where the housing crisis had hit hard and he was unable to find work. He applied to fast-food restaurants and retail, but had no luck getting hired. At one point, he and his wife, Katey, lived out of their car when they could no longer afford to pay their rent.
Still determined to find work, Varela discovered an apprenticeship opportunity at California utility PG&E's “PowerPathway” program, and he applied and was accepted. After he attended and graduated from the four-month program, he found work at Tesla's Tracy, Calif., office as an apprentice electrician with PG&E.
“I would like to thank PG&E for giving me this opportunity. The work PG&E provided me restored purpose to my life and gave me a sense of direction once again,” Varela said before introducing Obama at a White House event.
PG&E is expanding its “PowerPathway” program and is one of more than 300 companies that has agreed to develop so-called best practices to ensure the long-term unemployed aren't unfairly screened out of potential jobs.
The president spent Friday morning huddling with CEOs from some of the nation's largest companies to move forward on a State of the Union pitch to mitigate discrimination against the long-term unemployed.
Obama said those companies, as well as the federal government, would make changes to their hiring practices to ensure people who have been out of work for long periods aren't skipped over for jobs.
The president also touted a $150 million Labor Department grant competition to develop ways for those out of work more than six months to find jobs and a new effort, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to review and improve existing government job training programs.
At the event, Obama thanked business leaders, philanthropists and members of his administration who had worked to help hardworking Americans like Varela “not just get a paycheck but also the dignity and the structure that a job provides people.”
The president also used the event to repeat his criticism of Republicans for failing to pass an extension of unemployment insurance.
“And each week that Congress fails to restore that insurance, roughly 72,000 Americans will join the ranks of the long- term unemployed who've also lost their economic life,” he said.
The event on Friday capped a campaign this week by the White House to frame the president as willing to act regardless of congressional barriers.
Critics are accusing the White House of both sidestepping Congress and pursuing a modest agenda that undercuts the president's pledge to deliver major solutions to the nation's most vexing problems.
The day after Obama previewed his executive orders in the State of the Union House Republican leaders sent a letter to Obama identifying areas covered in the speech where the House has already passed legislation and is waiting for the Democratic-controlled Senate to act.
The first item they mentioned was a job-training bill the House passed in March that would consolidate myriad job-training programs to focus resources on the program that work, more closely link employment training to available jobs, eliminate red tape that delays individuals from receiving the training they need and strengthen the relationship between community colleges and job-training programs.
The job training bill, Republicans said, was endorsed by governors, associations representing employers and community colleges but the Senate has blocked it. They also said the General Accounting Office has already produced the job-training program review Biden will undertake.
“If you want action, we respectfully request that you or the vice president urge Senator [Majority Leader Harry] Reid to schedule this legislation for immediate consideration in the Senate and convene as soon possible a meeting of the relevant parties so that we may resolve any differences that exist and send you a bill for your signature by the end of February,” they wrote.
In addition to job training programs, White House officials stressed the importance of addressing discrimination
“There is a negative cycle in long-term unemployment,” Obama’s top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, told reporters Thursday. “People who stay unemployed six months or longer start facing significant disadvantages in the labor market.”
According to the White House, those who have been unemployed longer than six months receive only one job interview for every 35 resumes they send out. In comparison, an individual who has been out of work for a month lands one interview for every 10 resumes submitted, the White House said.
Among the organizations attending the meeting with Obama Friday: LinkedIn, JPMorgan Chase and the AARP Foundation.
And Sperling said the White House effort received at least one atypical endorsement — from media tycoon and frequent Obama critic Rupert Murdoch.
The economic adviser added that Murdoch committed to implementing the blueprint recommended by the White House.