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Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris, second from right, joins Contra Costa College President Denise Noldon, right, and Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, left, at Richmond Build III in Richmond, Calif., on Friday, April 19, at the warehouse training facility operated by three partners, Contra Costa College, the Richmond Workforce Investment Board and the San Pablo Economic Development Corp. The visit highlighted recent investments that have strengthened local partnerships between community colleges and employers.(Laura A. Oda/Staff)

RICHMOND -- The nation's top labor official Friday told a collection of local leaders that partnerships between business and community colleges and other institutions of higher learning are key to America's economic future.

"Skills development can be the leading edge of economic development for communities across the United States," acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris told about 50 elected officials, business leaders and workers at the city's RichmondBUILD facility. "Creating reliable (networks) of skilled workers means businesses can site their facilities and expand into communities that have been affected by trade and economic downturns."

Harris' remarks Friday morning came during a ceremony announcing $474.5 million in new funding for the third and final phase of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants program, passed in 2009.

"These grants are all about making sure workers have the skills to succeed in new jobs," Harris said.

Several speakers, including Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, UC Berkeley's Julie Sinai and Contra Costa College President Denise Noldon spoke after a brief tour of the RichmondBUILD facility. RichmondBUILD provides vocational training and job-placement assistance to residents and is run by three partners -- Contra Costa College, the Richmond Workforce Investment Board and the San Pablo Economic Development Corp.

Contra Costa College is part of the "Design-It Build-It Ship-It" consortium of 10 community colleges in the East Bay that was awarded $15 million through the Labor Department's community college and career training grants program. The funds are being used to support regional partnerships, build career pathways and enhance industry engagement in the advanced manufacturing, logistics and engineering industries, according to the Labor Department.

Contra Costa College received $600,000 as a member of the "Design-It Build-It Ship-It" consortium to develop new degree programs and accelerated certificates in partnership with the Richmond Workforce Investment Board and the San Pablo Economic Development Corp.

The speakers emphasized the importance of partnering higher education with business leaders and emerging industries to prepare students to enter the workforce.

Education and job development need to become better integrated so that workers have the skills to step into the workforce more fully prepared, Kanter said. The model must include on-the-job training as part of academic curricula to "bridge" students to employment, several speakers said.

Harris said President Barack Obama is "doubling down" on community colleges by asking for $8 billion in new funding in his 2014 budget proposal.

"We are building a 21st century workforce system," Harris said.

RichmondBUILD stands to benefit from additional funding to Contra Costa College, said RichmondBUILD Director Sal Vaca, because the college is a key partner and provides the training for the program. More than 600 residents have graduated from RichmondBUILD's vocational programs since they started in 2006, Vaca said.

Earlier this week, Vaca told the Richmond City Council that funding beyond this year is in doubt because of uncertainty surrounding the availability of state and federal grants. The council said it would consider providing city funds if necessary.

"The community college is a key partner," Vaca said. "Investment in their work-force-development programs helps us train local residents."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.