SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (CN) – U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta shared rogue tales of licensed dog-walkers and fortune tellers – while extolling the virtues of a college graduate who ditched his philosophy degree for a HVAC job – on Thursday to a crowded room atop the Holiday Inn City Centre in South Dakota’s largest city of Sioux Falls.
“Every job must have dignity,” Acosta said, pointing to the wide skills gap in America that has, according to his department’s latest figures, led to nearly 6 million jobs going unfilled.
“The [Trump] administration has one workforce development plan: jobs, jobs, and more jobs.”
The Western Governors’ Association sponsored the two-day workforce development event, hosted by South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard. He opened the morning touting the state’s low unemployment and low cost-of-living, pointing to the breakfast prices at local diners.
During the Q&A session, a local electrician stood up to ask Acosta if an aptitude test could be added to student exams to send them toward careers not needing college degrees.
“Are we biasing choice?” Acosta responded. “I think that’s the premise to your question.”
Employment flexibility, choice to pursue “family-sustaining careers,” and minimal interference from Washington were themes Acosta touched on as he laid out two priorities for President Donald Trump’s Labor Department: increased focus on apprenticeship, or “earn while you learn” programs, and cutting excessive licensing.
Acosta, the son of Cuban immigrants and a former dean at Florida International University School of Law, also tried to strike a tone of balance. He acknowledged a presentation earlier in the morning by Daugaard that suggested nearly all the jobs added post-recession required some kind of higher education.
“We need great mechanics, just like we need great doctors. We need great carpenters, just like we need great lawyers.”
When one attendee asked him about a college program in Arizona that prioritizes work-ready skills for minority students, Acosta nodded, saying he keeps in his office a photograph of graduates from a University of Maryland cybersecurity apprenticeship program comprised entirely of women and students of color.
“America’s best asset is its workforce,” he said.
The native Floridian also acknowledged the needs for Western governors differ from their East Coast counterparts.
“Unlike the last administration,” he said. “we won’t micromanage you.”
In keeping with this philosophy, Acosta spoke little about agriculture in this farm- and ranch-heavy state. At a morning press conference, he was asked about restrictive requirements of a guest-worker program that prevents dairy farmers from hiring immigrants for jobs. Acosta said some regulations are necessary, noting the case of a farmer in Arizona who – to meet the letter of the law – housed workers in substandard conditions.
Daugaard, a native of nearby Dell Rapids, jumped in to answer the question. He noted dairy work isn’t seasonal.
“The problem is that our dairy farmers don’t qualify for this program as they need help year-round. And these are jobs Americans won’t take,” Daugaard said. “We do have empathy for those situations.”
The conference wraps up Friday after a trip to Lake Area Technical Institute, a nationally recognized community college in Watertown, South Dakota, to see firsthand what Acosta and Daugaard referred to as “demand-driven education.”