U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez on Thursday announced a $100 million competitive grant program - the largest in department history, he said - aimed at expanding innovative apprenticeship opportunities across the country.

Perez made the announcement in Philadelphia, where he touted a successful apprenticeship program that equips students to be information technology professionals - jobs that can land graduates 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."

Philadelphia's program, he said, is precisely the kind the department is looking to reward.

Before formally announcing the grants, Perez, Mayor Nutter, and School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. toured the Urban Technology Project, a partnership between the Philadelphia School District and the nonprofit Communities in Schools.

The program gives Philadelphia youths three years of on-the-job training to learn code, troubleshoot tech problems, and perform other high-tech jobs. Participants work in 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 finishing high school. But she didn't have the money to finish her degree, and found the Urban Technology Project.

Now she's a second-year participant, providing tech support for two 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.

New Urban Technology Project participant Erika Jacobs, 23, graduated from a district alternative program and was not able to stay in college because of family issues.

Jacobs is a few months into the technology apprenticeship program but says it has 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 also lift people up.

"Your zip code should not determine your destiny," Perez said.

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

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