U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez on Thursday announced a $100 million competitive grant program - the largest in history, he said - that will go to expand apprenticeship programs.

Perez made the announcement in Philadelphia, where he touted a successful Philadelphia School District apprenticeship program that equips students to be Information Technology professionals - jobs that often land products of the program starting salaries of $50,000 or above.

"Apprenticeship is not only your ticket to the middle class," Perez said. "It's the other college."

Before formally announcing the grant program, he toured the Urban Technology Project, a partnership between the district and Communities in Schools. The program takes Philadelphia youth and gives them three years of on-the-job training to troubleshoot tech problems, code, and perform other high-tech jobs. Participants work inside city schools and district offices as IT support people, and earn industry certifications and stipends doing so.

Diamond Johnson, 21, a graduate of Franklin Learning Center, a district magnet school, started classes at Shippensburg University after she finished high school. But she didn't have the money to finish, and found the Urban Technology Project.

Now she's a second-year participant, providing tech support for the U School and the LINC, two new district schools.

"I said, OK, they're going to pay for my certifications and they're going to give me a scholarship? That's perfect," said Johnson.

Johnson, who's juggling classes at Community College with her apprenticeship, knows she'll have a leg up in the job market.

"This is all hands on, and I love what I'm doing," she said.

New Urban Technology Project participant Erika Jacobs, 23, graduated from a district alternative program and also left college after a few courses, because of family issues.

She's a few months into the program, but says it's already transformed her.

"Where I come from, we don't have a lot of opportunities," said Jacobs, who lives in South Philadelphia. "This is opportunity."

That was Perez's point, he said - programs like Philadelphia's feed a 21st century workforce, but they also lift people up.

"Your ZIP code should not determine your destiny," said Perez, who declared himself a major proponent of the program.

Philadelphia is not guaranteed a U.S. Department of Labor grant, Perez said, but it has had success earning such grants in the past. The deadline for grant applications is April 30.