In Camden, Perez visited the YouthBuild classroom building in the middle of the Peter J. McGuire Gardens public housing community, where he watched Troy Mathes, 24, of Camden, install a vent cover, vanity, and sink in a classroom.
Perez's department awarded the Camden YouthBuild program $1.1 million over three years to help fund its combination of construction training and education support, assisting young adults who had dropped out of school to obtain their degrees. In addition, a federal grant of $1.9 million for various Camden youth employment programs was funneled through the state.
In Camden, Mathes had no idea who Perez or the other dignitaries were, among them New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, and New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Harold Wirths.
"I was a little shy," he said.
But he and others, both current students and alumni, weren't shy about telling the politicians how much the YouthBuild program, which serves 65 students a year, meant to them.
"I'm speaking for the have-nots and for the people on the streets who have no hope," said Sean Benton, 29, an alumnus now enrolled in college, who credited the program with helping to turn "losers and gangsters" into "gentlemen and scholars."
"If you give them the hope and the opportunity, you'll be surprised what they can do," he told Perez.
Among those who spoke up at the roundtable were executives of two companies promising to employ hundreds of workers at their locations in Camden: Holtec International and Eastern Metal Recycling L.L.C.
Both said they could use help with training.
In his remarks, Perez told the group of young people and dignitaries that he believes that "zip codes should never determine destiny." He touted the value of apprenticeship programs, particularly in the building trades, which he described as "the other college, but without the debt."
That message resonated with Sweeney, a union ironworker, and Norcross, a union electrician.
Perez talked about the Obama administration's support for an increased federal minimum wage - raising it from the current $7.25 to up to $12 an hour - and paid leave so parents with sick children never have to choose between "a job they need and a child they care for."
Perez also answered Williams' question by telling him a story about his past - how his father died when he was 12 and how he went to college on government-funded Pell Grants. Perez advised Williams to bring his financial-aid applications into the center and someone would help him fill out the papers.
Williams didn't quit there. He also asked the dignitaries where other Camden young people could find assistance in getting jobs. He wanted a name and a phone number, and he got both; there is a Camden County One-Stop Career Center that specializes in helping young people age 16 to 24.