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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
A National Symposium: Veterans' Employment in Construction,
Perkins Building, Washington, DC,
February 10, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning everyone, and welcome to the United States Department of Labor. I'm so thrilled to be hosting you today — for this fantastic event, for an important announcement, and for this visit from the First Lady of the United States. Thank you, Mrs. Obama, for joining us today and for the extraordinary work you've been doing for the last five years. Under your leadership, Joining Forces is making a profound and powerful difference in the lives of so many military families.

I want to thank the Marine Corps Brass Quintet and the Armed Forces Joint Color Guard. And let me single out some special guests:

  • Former Chief of Staff of the United States Army General George Casey
  • Senior Enlisted Advisor to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sgt. Major Bryan Battaglia
  • Former Congressman Jim Oberstar
  • Former Congressman Patrick Murphy
  • Joining Forces Executive Director Colonel Rich Morales

I want to acknowledge the many employers in the room today, who are here because they know that hiring veterans is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

We also have so many important partners represented here today — from VSOs, from the labor movement, from Helmets to Hardhats, from training programs and more. I said it here during our Veterans' Day celebration and I'll say it again — I wish every issue we work on at the Labor Department had this many stakeholders eager to come to the table, roll their sleeves up and get meaningful results.

I want to thank our VETS team here at DOL — Assistant Secretary Keith Kelly and everyone who works at the Veterans' Employment and Training Service. And I also want to thank our federal government partners — from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and the Small Business Administration. Helping returning servicemembers find work is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise. It will only be successful if we work together to build a whole greater than the sum of our parts... which is exactly what we're doing.

Almost two weeks ago in his State of the Union address, President Obama laid out a vision based on the basic principle of opportunity for all. It doesn't matter what race or gender you are, what neighborhood you're from, or what language you speak at home — you can make it in America if you try. Through hard work and personal responsibility, everyone can succeed in living out their highest and best dreams.

Our nation's veterans and their families have sacrificed so much on behalf of these very values. Now that they've returned to civilian life, it's time for us to return the favor. Who deserves opportunity more than those who've put their lives on the line defending it?

I spend a lot of my time talking to business leaders around the country — because if we're going to create jobs, we have to talk to the job creators. And just about every employer I sit down with tells me some version of the same story: I want to grow my business, I want to expand, but I need more workers with the requisite skills to fill the jobs I need done.

So, what better place to look than a group of Americans who are battle-tested, who understand teamwork, leadership and discipline? What better place to look than our nations' veterans?

The economy is steadily improving, though there is more work that remains. Just on Friday, the Labor Department issued its latest employment report, and the private sector has now created 8.5 million jobs over the last 47 months. In fact, in Friday's report, it was the construction industry that showed one of the most dramatic rates of growth. Construction added more jobs in January than in any month since March 2007.

As we continue this recovery, as we once again get the economy firing on all cylinders, construction will be one of the industries leading the charge. It's expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, creating more than 1.5 million jobs by 2022. And these are good jobs... jobs with good wages... jobs that provide economic security... jobs that can't be outsourced or sent overseas...jobs that strengthen ladders of opportunities in particular for our veterans.

The construction industry has long maintained a proven training and employment infrastructure. Through apprenticeships, certification and credentialing programs provided by labor unions and individual employers, veterans can translate their skills into in-demand civilian occupations. Nearly 8 percent of all registered apprentices are veterans, while 23 percent of apprentices are active military members learning skills in over 120 occupations — ranging from airframe mechanics to firefighters.

We have testimonial after testimonial from construction industry employers who couldn't be happier with their veteran hires. They use words like motivated and mature; dependable and dedicated; responsible and reliable. They know that hiring veterans is good business. Veterans make our workforce more productive, our companies more profitable and our economy more competitive.

What we have here is a perfect fit — veterans who are ready to work and the construction industry that needs exactly what veterans have to offer. But we have to do more to make the right connections, build the right partnerships and take the best practices to scale.

So, we're doing a lot more than giving speeches today. This afternoon, we're going to get down a granular level with a series of expert-led roundtables, where staff can explain exactly how to access our American Job Centers; where we'll have detailed discussions about licensing and credentialing; where we'll drill down on registered apprenticeships and explore how they can be accessed using the GI Bill.

But now I want you to meet a few veterans with the very leadership qualities that make our military strong, our economy strong and our nation strong.

Larry Melton is a graduate of the Citadel and a Marine Corps veteran who served in Desert Storm. I understand he was quite an athlete as a young man; and while we're sorry for him that he never became an NFL quarterback, his work as a civil engineer for Bechtel means that soon you'll be able to take the train to Dulles Airport. So take that, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. This is one of the largest construction projects in the United States, and Larry has been helping lead the effort for many years.

He's the perfect example of someone whose leadership skills have made for a seamless transition — from distinguished military service to successful civilian employment. Please welcome: Larry Melton.