First lady Jill Biden met with students, teachers and business leaders in the Chicago area Monday to kick off National Apprenticeship Week, highlighting education as a nonpartisan “American issue.”
“Education has always been about jobs. And it isn’t a red issue or a blue issue. It’s an American issue,” Biden told a packed audience of more than 200 people at the Loop office of Aon, the global professional services firm. “And everyone has a role to play.”
Biden was joined by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. They spent the day highlighting apprenticeship opportunities in high school and at the community college level.
The first lady urged Chicago employers to create “inclusive career opportunities” for students from all backgrounds. She touted the Biden administration’s commitment to “career-connected learning” programs that bridge the gap between what students learn and the careers they eventually find, calling it “the future of our workforce.”
“With your help, we can build a stronger, more powerful economy for everyone — from the bottom up and the middle out,” she said, directly addressing business leaders and government officials at Aon, including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Department announced its Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative, a national network of more than 200 employers and organizations who are committed to hiring a diverse workforce. The inaugural group includes the Chicago Apprentice Network’s co-founders Aon, Zurich North America and Accenture.
Aon apprentice Terionna Wilson introduced the first lady at Monday’s event. The Chicago native is pursuing a business degree at Harold Washington College and hopes to work in the insurance industry. She said Biden is “definitely a hugger,” which helped calm her nerves.
“Today was pretty amazing. Just being able to shake her hand and being able to talk to her made me feel really great,” she said.
Wilson’s older sister, Teonna, landed a full-time job with Aon after completing an apprenticeship about two years ago. She said that inspired her to pursue bigger goals and hopes the rest of her siblings will follow suit.
“I learned that I wanted something more for myself,” Wilson said. “My main goal is to be stable, to provide for my family and those in need.”
Biden was greeted at O’Hare International Airport around noon by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. She traveled to Rolling Meadows High School in the northwest suburbs to meet with students in a career pathways program.
She also discussed the importance of creating hands-on job opportunities as early as high school.
“As a community college professor, I see how badly we need this and how kids can start early,” Biden said during a roundtable discussion. “Not everyone needs a four-year degree. It’s all about jobs.”
During the visit, Secretary Cardona announced a new White House initiative called Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success, which aims to connect students to high-quality training programs.
He said schools nationwide should implement programs for work-based learning, dual college enrollment and pathways to earning industry credentials similar to what Rolling Meadows has.
“If we could take what we have here, bottle it up and take it across the country, we would have a better country,” Cardona said.
Kate Foley, a student at Rolling Meadows, said what her teachers exposed her to first piqued her interest in engineering. She works with metal printers and other machines at school.
Foley said she was personally motivated after watching her mother struggle with breast cancer. She wants to continue training and pursue biomedical engineering so she can help other people avoid what her mother went through.
“There’s gotta be a better way,” Foley said.
Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ.