Center Maryland: Secretary Perez: Climbing the staircase to the middle class

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on March 20, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Community college and apprenticeships are to America’s human infrastructure what on-ramps are to highways: one way to gain the necessary skills to advance and build a better future, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tomas E. Perez told Greater Baltimore Committee members this week at a breakfast meeting in Baltimore.

Perez used a highway metaphor to illustrate the importance of investments in human infrastructure and how those can help grow the middle class.

“What we need to do now is redouble our efforts and invest in that human capital infrastructure,” Perez said. “We need that skills super highway of the 21st century to make sure that we can compete in the 21st century global economy.

“The destination for everyone is the middle class,” he said.

Perez addressed more than 150 members and guests of the Greater Baltimore Committee at the inaugural “Newsmaker” breakfast series on March 16 at the Renaissance Hotel in Baltimore.

Perez, a former secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, discussed workforce development issues from the federal perspective. The topic was: “Middle Class Economics: Investing in Opportunity for American Workers and Employers.”

He spoke with conviction about the multiple pathways to success, which for some people is attained by completing courses at community college.

“You don’t need a four-year degree to punch your ticket to the middle class,” Perez said. “High school is not enough for so many people. That is why we continue to invest in community colleges and why we continue to invest in bold ideas.”

Perez, who called community college the “secret sauce,” also emphasized the value of apprenticeships.

“Apprenticeship is a proven route to the middle class,” he said. “I have seen nationally that apprenticeship works, I have seen internationally that apprenticeship works. We need to build an on ramp on our skills superhighway for apprenticeships. This is indeed the other college.”

There is also a need for “on-ramps” for veterans, immigrants, youths, people with disabilities and criminal records, Perez said.

He also spoke about the need to have partnerships at scale and the vital importance of leadership.

“When we work together we can get a lot done,” Perez said. “The thing I love about Maryland is we understand that creating a good business climate involves investing in infrastructure – human capital infrastructure, educational infrastructure, physical infrastructure. These are the keys to long-term success.”

One example of leadership Perez touted is that the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is cultivating partnerships with businesses and a pipeline of minority scientists and engineers.

He also pointed to the Port of Baltimore as a regional asset and the importance of investing in it, particularly as Greater Baltimore competes with cities in other countries that also have ports.

“We are under investing, east and west, in our port infrastructure and we do that at our peril,” he said.

Perez also addressed the need to invest in mass transit and advocate for high speed rail.

“Mass transit will provide those opportunities for tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not the Purple Line versus the Red Line. It should be the Purple Line and the Red Line.”

Perez asked the business leaders to visualize the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore connected by high-speed rail.

“That is not a pipe dream,” he said. “That is a reality if we simply continue our relentlessness, if we continue to have our focus on the long-term, I think we can do this. Maryland works best when we make full use of all of our assets. We have bold leadership here in the business community. We have folks who understand that ‘we’ is the key to success.”

The secretary’s comments underscore the importance of business leaders and elected officials – the ‘we’ – working together as a key to Maryland’s success.

It is vitally important that business and government leaders partner to develop policies that are beneficial for job growth. This will advance the state’s competitive business environment and enable us to maximize our potential.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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