ESCANABA - U.S. Congressman Dan Benishek visited Escanaba Friday during a tour of the Upper Peninsula to advocate for improved access to vocational education across Northern Michigan.
During a tour of the 1st Congressional District last year, Benishek, R-Iron River, learned one major concern of employers is not having enough qualified people to fill their open positions.
"There's people with jobs that weren't getting filled and people need jobs here, and then it comes down to training," he said. "We started out with having a couple of roundtables with educators, superintendents of schools, community college people, business people, and just trying to get some input."
One of the biggest problems he learned was of "rigid" curriculum standards in high schools resulting from No Child Left Behind and other state and federal rules, making it difficult for them to introduce students to vocational education.
"We sponsored some legislation and co-sponsored some stuff in the House to kind of loosen that up and we're still looking for avenues to do that," said Benishek.
"The other thing, of course, is coordinating with local people so that the local community, the business owners, the state and the feds are all in it together," he added, noting his office has placed an 'Educational Resources' tab on his website, benishek.house.gov, to provide additional resources for educators and his constituents.
One project relating to vocational education he is currently involved with in the district is in the infancy stages of development.
"They're trying to put together something with Bay West ... and they have some other corporate partners, to make it more of a training center there and also get those kind of high school level opportunities in the Iron Mountain area," he said.
During his stop in Escanaba, Benishek visited the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD Tech Center to witness firsthand the vocational opportunities for students there.
He also paid a visit to Basic Marine, Inc. in Escanaba, which is currently in the process of expanding its dock facilities.
"We're trying to help them with the dredging," he said. "The dredging is a key component of that. Not only here in Escanaba, but throughout the district that's a huge issue. We've been leading the effort to try to be sure that money that's dedicated for dredging actually goes for dredging, which has been a problem with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund."
Benishek said lawmakers have put together an appropriations letter and noted he has also co-sponsored the Realize America's Maritime Promise (RAMP) Act, each of which addresses the need for this funding to go toward dredging instead of other items.
"Escanaba has a real potential for doing a lot of good work there," he said, of Basic Marine. "They can get that dredged to a deep port depth and they can bring in the thousand-footers in the winter and do a lot of refurbishing and there's the potential for lots of jobs there."
On the topic of gun control, Benishek said he is a firm believer in Second Amendment rights and doesn't believe in taking away the right to bear arms. Instead, he believes mental health must be addressed.
"This mental health care in this country definitely needs some help," he said. "People's ability to get weapons if they're significantly mentally ill - that's a problem."
Benishek said if a person is determined to be mentally ill by court of law or pleads guilty to insanity, they should not have access to weapons.
"If it's been coming through a court, then that would be a pretty good reason for you not to have a weapon...," he said. "I think we need to be enforcing the laws that we have now a little more vigorously."
The biggest priority he has this next term is trying to help determine what the Affordable Care Act means for the people of his district.
"The more time goes by as we're entering into this Affordable Care Act, more and more things are becoming noticeable to people and they're coming to me to try to solve them and I don't really have a good answer," said Benishek. "We're trying to provide information for people."
One issue he has heard from some employers in the district concerning the Affordable Care Act is the difficulty in getting insurance quotes for their employees.
"Getting that sorted out's going to be a priority for us in this coming year and what we can stop in the President's health care bill and what we can't because the uncertainty is so tremendous it's causing a lot of trouble for our local hospitals and our local doctors and employers, and eventually it's going to come down to the individual," said Benishek.