After reporting to the Committee on Education and Workforce Development last week about the status of his department, V.I. Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan was on the stand again Monday talking about the economic future of the territory at the Fritz Lawaetz Conference Room on St. Croix.
“Yesterday’s world counted on natural resources and manufacturing in order to breed success; the world of today and tomorrow is based on innovation, the ability to create and recreate applications that change our lives and the way that we work,” Bryan said.
“Currently we have about 12 percent of our population with a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent of our population that receives food stamps. These are statistics that we have to switch,” Bryan said.
Since the University of the Virgin Islands receives $29 million a year in funding, Bryan said he thinks students with a 3.0 average should be given free tuition to encourage more college graduates.
Senators didn’t all agree with Bryan and argued that trade skills are as important as technology and higher education.
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson said the Labor and the Education Departments should focus on certification courses to cross-train laid off refinery workers because of a constant need for infrastructure, autos and homes.
Bryan said students need math and reading skills to complete certification courses. While electricians, auto mechanics and other trades will always be needed, it will be the “new economy” that will drive the need for those items, he said.
The territory needs to compete in a world market with only 43,000 workers, Bryan said, to become “silicone island” and create wealth such as Google and Facebook.
“You have value in ideas now, not just in gold and silver. That’s what we need to be talking about,” he said.
Sen. Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly asked what can be done for youth who hang out on street corners with nothing to do. Bryan said they are trying instead to help people who come into the Labor Department and want to find jobs.
“Ninety-nine percent of our funds are dedicated to serve the underemployed or unemployed, but no funds are dedicated to those who are doing well. So we need resources for those who are doing well,” Bryan said, adding that those with college degrees can’t find jobs, so more summer programs are needed. “We spend so much time working on the bottom that the top goes to waste.”
Rivera-O’Reilly asked Bryan about federal grants for which the territory might qualify. The territory is not likely to qualify for a $150 million federal Ready to Work grant for immigrants since few are working in the territory, Bryan answered. However, there may be funds available from a federal program for inmates on work release, he said.
Sen. Tregenza Roach asked about the minimum wage in the territory. Bryan said it was last raised in 1991 and he thinks it will increase $1 by 2015.
Bryan corrected himself and said the current unemployment rate in the territory is 13 percent with 14 percent on St. Croix and 12 percent in St. Thomas/St. John. The reason the rate has dropped, according to Bryan, is that fewer people are looking for work.
Also attending the hearing were Sens. Sammuel Sanes, Myron Jackson and Committee Chairman Donald Cole.