Parents, guidance counselors, and teachers need to know that not every young person should be shoved into college, he said, and that "there is a bright future for people who work with their hands."
Perez, a lawyer, visited the facility in the morning before delivering the commencement address at Drexel University's School of Law.
Perez met Holzer, 27, while touring the training facility. She helped him don a simulator hat and aim a spray gun - the same device novice painters use to learn how to paint girders and other surfaces.
Holzer, of Northeast Philadelphia, told Perez that she graduated from college in 2008 with a degree in Spanish, hoping to get a teaching job, but that an economy on the skids didn't afford her that opportunity. After bartending, she met some union painters and decided to take the tests necessary to qualify for apprenticeship.
"I love it," she said. "I really do."
She told Perez she wishes she could give back her degree - and the loan that paid for it. She incurred $60,000 in debt to get through Cabrini College.
Apprentices spend time on the job being paid for their work and time in the classroom when they aren't paid. Next year, Holzer will become a third-year apprentice and will spend two days a month in classroom training, earning about $27 an hour while at work.
Perez commended the painters' union for not abandoning training during the economic downturn. The facility is unusual among apprentice programs because it has earned accreditation from the U.S. Department of Education, allowing it to offer college credits.
"Teachers are always telling you college, college, college," Stephen Jolicoeur told Perez. Jolicoeur is still in high school, at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.
"Here you are getting a college degree," he said, "and they are paying you."