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Gov. Steve Bullock talks with a reporter

Gov. Steve Bullock talks with a reporter on May 13, 2019.

WHITEFISH — The federal government will play a key role in training and creating opportunities for tomorrow’s workforce, Gov. Steve Bullock said here Tuesday.

On the sidelines of the National Governors Association’s annual “solutions summit,” he told the Missoulian that “here in Montana, and in a lot of the 32 states that are here, what we see is that we've got to train people to get them credentials along the way, and the federal government hasn't been as quick to respond as it should.”

The summit was part of Bullock’s yearlong tenure as chair of the National Governors Association. His “Chair’s Initiative,” dubbed “Good Jobs for All Americans,” focuses on state governments’ role in addressing workforce challenges.

At Tuesday’s conference, Bullock joined roughly 80 representatives of state and territorial governments, businesses and other organizations, to discuss workforce-related issues and finalize a “Governors’ Guide” on addressing these challenges.

The summit came close on the heels of his presidential campaign announcement last week, when Bullock joined a crowded field of Democratic candidates, and stressed his accomplishments in campaign finance reform.

The Whitefish jobs summit wasn't a campaign event, and Bullock's candidacy only drew a few, ribbing references from attendees. But when Bullock discussed the need for creating high-quality jobs throughout the country, he hit the same notes as his campaign

“No one should have to leave their community or their school or their place of worship just to find a good job,” Bullock told the guests, using almost the exact line with which he launched his campaign in Helena.

“Certainly the private sector has to do a significant share more to provide good jobs and pathways for workers, but we also can't expect them to do it all alone. As governors and as state leaders, we really are well-positioned to bring together employers, educators and workers to build that new infrastructure for jobs today and jobs of the future.”

To that end, he said later, the federal government will also need to step up. “I think the federal government can play a critical role. Apprenticeships and work-based learning is an example.”

Federal grant dollars, he said, had helped Montana expand opportunities for its workers. But in existing programs, Bullock sees too much of a focus on traditional, four-year higher education, when in today’s world, “it’s not always about a degree. Sometimes, it’s shorter-term programs.”

Asked by the Missoulian how, if elected, he would use presidential authority to meet the nation’s workforce needs, Bullock said, “in part it’s how you prioritize your partnerships between the federal (government) and the state, but it’s also, ‘Are we investing federal dollars to give everybody a shot?’ and we don't always do that.” He identified trade adjustment assistance, or retraining for workers whose jobs are outsourced, as one area in need of more investment. 

Bullock also sees a need for more infrastructure spending. “Our state was actually developed through rural electrification. I think it would be about $61 billion to actually make sure that high speed (internet) connectivity was in every home across the country. That's an area where the federal government really can facilitate opportunities for people at the state (level), too.”

Extracting that kind of investment today’s Congress will be difficult, he acknowledged. “Nothing can get done necessarily in D.C. and that's frustrating. … The idea that we would invest in rural broadband ought not to be a partisan issue.”

Partisanship isn’t the only obstacle Bullock sees to creating tomorrow’s jobs. In an afternoon discussion with Internet entrepreneur Steve Case, the governor conceded that Montana’s low population and vast territory could also deter investment. “What, in part, we’ve tried to do (is) recognizing that and say there's some things that government can do to make up.”

As one example of that approach, he cited the “All-In-Missoula” technology consultant trainee program. Technology consulting company Cognizant ATG partnered with the University of Montana/Missoula College to train 26 students for jobs at its Missoula center, then hired all of them upon graduation. The company also separately received a $255,000 grant from the Montana Department of Commerce for new hires, unrelated to the All-in-Missoula program.

The bulk of Tuesday’s conference focused on solutions like these, and ways that state, corporate and nonprofit entities could work together to meet workforce needs. Bullock and Case, currently the CEO of Washington, D.C.-based technology firm Revolution, discussed these topics for most of their allotted hour. (Federal Election Commission filings show that in the 2018 election cycle, Case gave $2,700 to the congressional campaign of Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., now one of Bullock’s primary opponents).

But Case couldn’t resist bringing up the campaign, calling him “President Bullock” at one point and pointing out at another that the governor had recently embarked on his own, high-profile job search. 

Amid widespread chuckling, the governor replied, “Yeah, that’s — that’s for later.”

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