By Steve Holland
OAKDALE, Penn. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took a trip to a Pennsylvania community college on Wednesday to promote a plan to train workers for skills they need for hard-to-fill jobs.
For security reasons, Obama and Biden flew in separate planes for the event in this suburb of Pittsburgh but rode in the same limousine from the airport and appeared together at the Community College of Allegheny County.
With the visit, they put a renewed emphasis on the U.S. economy after the Obama administration last week met the early enrollment benchmarks for Obama's healthcare law months after the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.Gov.
Obama told an audience that some jobs lost to overseas competition in recent decades are coming back to the United States but that they are sometimes hard to fill because workers lack the skills.
He announced a plan to use $500 million in existing Labor Department funds to pay for a competition to spur employers and community colleges to work together and develop training programs that are designed to get workers prepared for specific jobs.
Another $100 million will be drawn from a Labor Department fund to support programs aimed at training apprentices in new fields with fast-growing occupations such as information technology, healthcare and advanced manufacturing.
"In today's economy it has never been more important to make sure that our folks are trained for the jobs that are there and for the jobs in the future," Obama said.
Obama, who travels to Asia next week, and Biden, who leaves on Sunday for Ukraine, appeared to be enjoying their time together out of Washington.
During a classroom tour of a "mechatronics" exhibit featuring machinery and electronics, when a machine whirred to life, Obama told Biden: "Joe, don't put your fingers in there."
"I'm proud to introduce a buddy of mine," Biden said in introducing Obama to the crowd.
"Joe and I decided it was time for a guys' trip," said Obama.
He said that before the trip he had no idea there existed a discipline known as "mechatronics" and that it "sounds like something that Godzilla would be fighting."
Training and retraining workers for job skills has been a problem that has bedeviled various presidents.
In the current economy, for example, many people lack the skills to become software developers or computer programmers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates American companies will need 522,000 people with these skills in the next decade.
In addition, there will be a need for 110,000 pharmacists, 224,000 electricians and 941,000 customer service representatives, as well as people trained as welders, machinists, dental hygienists and even electrical power line installers.
Administration officials who briefed reporters about the initiative said the aim is to address the needs of a fast-changing economy.
"The pace of change - technology, globalization - has changed the nature of work and the speed at which necessary skills change," said a senior Obama administration official.
The plan is part of an effort launched in Obama's State of the Union speech in January to act with his own presidential authority in the absence of a consensus from a divided Congress.
While the economy has rebounded since bottoming out early in Obama's first term, many Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, and Obama has made it a priority of his second term to help the middle class and reduce income inequality.
Congressional Republicans believe they have the right antidote for the problem, and wish Obama and the Democrats would consider their proposals.
A legislative proposal called the SKILLS act, passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, would eliminate and streamline 35 programs and create a Workforce Investment Fund to serve as a single source of support for workers, employers and job seekers.
"Republicans have passed numerous pro-jobs bills - like the SKILLS Act - yet President Obama and the Democrats who control the Senate have done nothing to advance this legislation," said Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal in Washington; Editing by Ken Wills and Tom Brown)