“I support training. But I need a job!” declared Linda Overbey, 54, an unemployed union painter who became the first of several people removed by police from the otherwise orderly hearing at the Ralph and Betty Engelstad campus of Opportunity Village.
Overbey and about a dozen other audience members — who got up and left after the demonstration inside to set up a protest outside — directed their ire at Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.
“I share the frustration of people who expressed their concerns,” Heck responded during the hearing headed by congressional Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.
Heck said his daughter, a recent graduate of a hotel management program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had to move out of Nevada to find a job. He said later she now works for Hilton Corp. in Washington, D.C.
State officials put the Las Vegas jobless rate at 14 percent, and the statewide rate at 12.9 percent.
Kline said he has seen similar passions at other hearings the panel has held in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Indiana and North Carolina. “People are passionate all across the country about jobs,” he said. “It’s genuine and it’s everywhere.”
But he also downplayed the protests as organized attempts to draw attention. “There are agendas afoot and politics at play,” Kline said.
A Nevada state Democratic Party spokesman, Zach Hudson, characterized Tuesday’s field hearing by three GOP Congressmen as “playing to the cameras” on a day when Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was hosting Vice President Joe Biden at a national clean energy conference in Las Vegas.
Kline cast the hearing as an essential fact-finding stop on a drive to reform the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which set up one-stop centers for workers to receive job training and employment services.
The law has been due for reauthorization since 2003, and the committee chairman said he wants to send it to Congress this year with more accountability and a cut in regulations to streamline the process to help workers gain skills and training.
Kline cited a Congressional Government Accountability Office report that found taxpayers funnel $18 billion annually into 47 separate job training programs administered by nine different agencies. Kline said 44 programs overlap with at least one other program, and only five have been evaluated for effectiveness.
Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen, economic analyst Jeremy Aguero, St. Rose Dominican Hospitals executive LeRoy Walker and Darren Enns of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council spoke about problems facing Nevada’s economy and workforce.
“The numbers are nothing short of staggering,” said Aguero, of Applied Analysis in Las Vegas.
Nevada was for 20 years a national leader in growth, job creation and investment. But since the recession began in 2008, the state lost 140,000 jobs, or 15 percent of its workforce. More than half those lost jobs were in construction, Aguero said.
Aguero put the Las Vegas-area unemployment rate at higher than 10 percent for 31 consecutive months.
“For those lucky enough to remain employed, hours and wages have been cut,” he told the panel. Average hours worked by private sector employees has dropped almost 12 percent, and average weekly wages have dropped almost 11 percent.
Kline said the panel wanted to address what he termed “a disconnect between training and preparation of workers and where they are needed.”
Enns, the trades council official, said he feared a national focus on helping employers, developers and educational institutions left out the workers.
“We need your help to create jobs,” he said. “We can’t write them off and say, ‘We can’t fix it. Sorry.’”
Opportunity Village chief Ed Guthrie, Nevada Workforce Connections director John Ball and College of Southern Nevada executive Rebecca Metty-Burns focused on the need to be flexible in adapting job training to job openings.
Heck said he was encouraged by Nevada Workforce Connections successes, but feared that many of some 72,000 out-of-work construction workers won’t find new construction jobs and may need retraining.
Heck contrasted Las Vegas boomtown lore about construction workers building homes for other construction workers with Aguero’s report that two of every three Las Vegas-area construction jobs had disappeared.
“We may never be able to fully absorb construction workers again,” Heck said. “It may take going back to school.”