By Jeff Mason
WAUKESHA, Wisc. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama promised to overhaul federal jobs training programs on Thursday during the second leg of a tour intended to highlight his proposals to improve the fortunes of low- and middle-income Americans.
Obama traveled to Wisconsin to discuss efforts to ensure U.S. training programs match up with demand for jobs. Later in the day he made a stop in Tennessee to discuss education.
The trip is a follow-up to Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday, in which he called for greater economic fairness in a nation that is still recovering from the deep 2007-2009 recession.
Focusing on job training spotlights the fact that there are jobs available in the improving economy while demonstrating that the president is at work trying to get more unemployed people into positions that suit them.
"We've got a lot of programs, but not all of them are doing what they should be doing to get people filled for jobs that exist right now," Obama said of existing government training programs during a visit to a General Electric facility outside of Milwaukee.
"We've got to move away from what my labor secretary calls 'train and pray.' You train workers first, and then you hope they get a job."
The GE Energy facility in Waukesha produces engines for utilities and oil and gas fields. The plant partners with a training program in the area that groups colleges, labor unions, and community groups to provide training for its workers.
"What you're doing at this plant and across this region can be a model for the country," Obama said.
"You can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need," he said.
Obama has a close relationship with GE chief executive Jeff Immelt, who has advised him on strategies for recovery and job creation after the recession. Immelt was not at the event on Thursday.
GE employed about 134,000 people in the United States and about 305,000 people worldwide at the end of 2012.
On Friday, Obama will meet at the White House with chief executives of companies that have agreed to do more to try to hire people who have been out of work for six months or longer.
A group of 300 companies, including Wal-Mart, Apple and Ford, have agreed to follow a new set of "best practices" for recruitment, Obama said in an interview with CNN.
"Do not screen people out of the hiring process just because they've been out of work for a long time," Obama said.
"Folks are looking at that gap in the resume and they're weeding them out before these folks even get a chance for an interview."
Obama has been unsuccessful in efforts to push Congress to extend jobless benefits for people who have been seeking work for more than six months. Jobless benefits for 1.5 million Americans expired at the end of 2013.
Obama also signed a presidential memo on Thursday to launch a review of U.S. training programs that will be headed by Vice President Joe Biden.
The move shows the president following through on the pledge he made on Tuesday to not wait for congressional action to move ahead on his priorities. Obama told lawmakers in his address that they could do their part to support job training by providing more funding for proven training programs.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives said they had already passed a bill to consolidate such programs and said the Government Accountability Office, an independent congressional watchdog, had already produced a review of how to overhaul the system.
"Mr. President, we agree and we don't believe we need to wait," said Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and other top Republicans in a letter to Obama about the training issue.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that having Biden lead the training program review would elevate its importance.
"When the vice president is put in charge of an effort like this, it gets done and it will be effective, and that's what the president expects," Carney said.
Obama started a series of trips to put a spotlight on the relatively modest policy agenda he outlined in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday, calling for a higher minimum wage and improved savings opportunities for workers in stops in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Later on Thursday he visited McGavock High School in Nashville, the site of a program that seeks to align students' educations more closely with employers' needs.
McGavock is Nashville's largest school and had been on track for state takeover because of poor performance. However, the city has since overhauled its large high schools and brought in companies to help design job-related educational specializations.
"You've made great strides," Obama told cheering students at the school. "We want to celebrate what you've achieved."
Before his remarks, Obama met with the family of a student who was shot and killed earlier in the week, a White House official said.
He did not mention gun control in his remarks, but he has promised to keep up his efforts to reduce violence despite a lack of appetite in Congress for tighter rules for firearms.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal in Washington, and Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Editing by Ken Wills)