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Anyone in America who has lost a job or is in a dead-end job might look to a government program to train for a new job, especially in a field where workers are in demand. But the nation's workforce development system hasn't always succeeded in matching the training to the work. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports on efforts underway to change that.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Something pretty remarkable happened yesterday. President Obama signed a new law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. It streamlines and updates the nation's job-training programs and was 11 years overdue. The bill got overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Folks in Congress got past their differences. And they got a bill to my desk. So this is not a win for Democrats or Republicans. It is a win for American workers.
KEITH: The act aims to better match training to employer needs and encourages more apprenticeships and on-the-job training. The measure of success will no longer be just how many people sign up for training but how many get jobs. At the same time Congress was working out the details of the bill, Vice President Joe Biden was traveling around the country looking at what works and what doesn't.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My pleasure. Nice to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Good to see you. How are you doing?
KEITH: Back in March, he visited New Hampshire where an innovative on-the-job training program has helped nearly 700 people get new jobs since 2010. He stopped into XMA Corporation, a small manufacturer which has hired about half a dozen people so far using the program. And Biden was clearly impressed.
BIDEN: We're trying to replicate what you're doing all over the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: It works. It works.
BIDEN: It does work.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: For a small to medium sized company like ours and others, having this program is excellent for bringing in good talent.
KEITH: The program targets the long-term unemployed and pays up to 90 percent of the employee's salary while a company trains them to fill an opening it has. While he was there, Biden met Brian Alexander, a design engineer with a big scruffy beard and a story that probably sounds familiar. The company where Alexander worked for more than a decade was taken over by a larger corporation.
BRIAN ALEXANDER: And I got laid off. They eliminated my position was what I was told.
KEITH: He had 40 years of experience, and eight months after losing his job, he was still unemployed.
ALEXANDER: You know, I was basically almost ready to retire.
KEITH: Alexander was a skilled engineer, but he wasn't up to date on the latest design software. Through the state program, he applied for a job at XMA Corporation. Marc Smith is the company's CEO.
MARC SMITH: A lot of times, it's hard to get good talent. And this - that's why this program has been so good because we can find people like Brian - he lives 10 minutes from here. I would've never found him, you know. And if I did find him, I wouldn't be sure if he was a good fit or not. So we brought him in, only to find out it was a home run.
KEITH: While the state paid a portion of his salary, Smith says XMA helped get Alexander trained on the software he needed to do the job.
SMITH: Did you use Solidworks before you came here?
ALEXANDER: No, I didn't know Solidworks.
SMITH: So there you go.
So there's part of the whole training program where the guy's really a magnificent RF engineer - but as far as the mechanical tools of Solidworks or 3-D modeling, it's new.
KEITH: Within months of coming on board, Alexander was named employee of the month and had a nickname, the big tuna. His story made an impression on the vice president.
BIDEN: So what Brian had - He had all of these degrees and all this skill, but he needed a different programming knowledge. And so it took just a little bit of training, and the guy - boom. And he was excited.
KEITH: Brian Alexander is among the 95 percent of people who participated in the New Hampshire program still employed, most of them, with the same employer. It's become something of a national model, and its influence is apparent in a report Biden released yesterday, the culmination of six months of fact-finding. It calls for engaging employers and encouraging on-the-job training.
BIDEN: So it really is connecting an individual with an opening and the skill required to fill that opening. It's that basic, but it's hundreds of thousands of jobs available.
KEITH: That's exactly what the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act aims to do. With House officials say Biden's work gives the administration a head start in implementing the act. Virginia Foxx is a North Carolina Republican and a former community college president. She was instrumental in writing the new law.
VIRGINIA FOXX: Job training is so yesterday. Workforce development and skills development is tomorrow.
KEITH: Foxx stood next to the president and the vice president yesterday, wearing a bright pink suit and smiling as Obama signed the bill. Afterward, Biden said she told him he was starting to sound like a Republican. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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