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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,
National Association of Workforce Boards
Forum: Dialogue for Workforce Excellence,
Washington, D.C.,
March 31, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good afternoon everyone. Eric, thank you for those kind words. If I've learned one thing in eight months as a cabinet secretary, it's this: make sure the person introducing you is someone who works for you. In all seriousness, I don't believe in those kinds of organizational hierarchies. Prepositions matter — it's work with, not work for. I've worked with Eric for many years, and I'm smarter for it.

Thank you Cathy and Ron and the entire leadership of NAWB. And what an honor to be here with the men and women on the front lines every day, doing the hard work of workforce development. I can't thank you enough for your Herculean efforts. Since 2007, when the economy took a downward turn, so much of the burden has fallen on you. Though there was an infusion of resources with the Recovery Act, now you're increasingly being asked to do more with less. For example, in 2012, you helped nearly 150 percent more job seekers than you did in 2007. But still your results remain unbelievably strong.So, again, thank you.

I can assure you of this: your issues and your work are receiving unprecedented attention at the very highest levels of the federal government. President Obama has laid out a vision based on the fundamental principle of opportunity for all. No matter the circumstances of your birth or the zip code you live in, you should have a chance to live out your highest and best dreams. How far you get should depend on how hard you work.

There are a few pillars of this opportunity agenda. First, it means creating good jobs that pay good wages. It means access to a world-class education for everyone, beginning in early childhood. And opportunity also means making sure hard work is rewarded — with a wage you can live on, savings you can retire on and health care that's there when you need it.

That last point is particularly relevant on this last day of March. Because tonight at midnight is the open enrollment deadline for the Health Insurance Marketplace. The workforce system has been indispensable to our outreach efforts in this area. As our partner in overseeing the American Job Centers network, the local workforce boards have played a crucial role in connecting the customers we serve with this opportunity to get the health care they need at prices they can afford. The progress we've made would not be possible without your help and support — more than 6 million people enrolled! But there are still people out there who need coverage, and there's only hours left. So if you know anyone who still needs health insurance, tell them to log on to healthcare.gov right away.

But any opportunity agenda of course must have as its linchpin a laser focus on workforce development — investing in human capital, making sure that our people have the skills to succeed in 21st century jobs. And the President of the United States knows that in his bones. That's why he has assigned Vice President Biden the important task of reviewing the federal government's job training programs. The guiding principle in this process is job-driven-training: making sure we're moving ready-to-work Americans into ready-to-be-filled jobs.

I am pleased to be working closely with the Vice President on this skills initiative. Of course, we're not starting from scratch. All across our system we have great examples of job-driven programs, some of which we modeled in Maryland when I was at the state workforce agency (is Maryland in the house)? In Detroit, we're performing customized screenings and assessments to help a single employer hire more than 800 workers, a success story so compelling that the CEO was invited to the State of the Union address and singled out by the president. In Seattle, we're implementing employer-led customized training with the maritime industry and other growth sectors to help the long-term unemployed take advantage of opportunities in new fields. In Charlotte, we're partnering with Registered Apprenticeship programs to move job-seekers into solid, middle class jobs.

And just last week I was in New Hampshire with Vice President Biden, where we visited the Nashua NH Works American Job Center and also toured Manchester-based XMA Corporation, a global supplier of radio frequency and microwave components that has successfully participated in New Hampshire's On-The-Job Training Program.

Our skills agenda has five overarching goals:

  1. Expand, deepen and sustain employer partnerships with the workforce system.
  2. Make it easier for people to acquire in-demand skills by aligning programs across the federal government and working to ensure people know exactly where they can go to get high-quality employment services that will result in a job.
  3. Spurring innovation at the federal, state and local levels through tools like waivers and real-time labor market technologies.
  4. Finding what works and taking it to scale…while fixing what doesn't work by requiring greater accountability from the system, sharing effective program models and developing common ways to measure success.
  5. Taking the time-tested apprenticeship model and transforming it for the 21st century by simplifying the program and restructuring the way we work with employers and industry groups.

The administration's commitment to workforce development isn't just lip service. We're putting our money where our mouth is. The 2015 budget proposal unveiled a few weeks ago includes robust investments in skills and training programs across-the board. The two largest items in the budget are a $2 billion apprenticeship proposal that will double the number of Registered Apprentices over the next five years and a $6 billion community college job-driven training fund.

We're also requesting more than $1 billion to restore cuts to employment and training programs; an expansion of the Reemployment Eligibility Assessment and Reemployment Services program; incentive grants for states; and funding for sector strategies that I know are near and dear to many in this room.

So while this Administration is making workforce development the very highest priority — and while we're prepared to invest the necessary resources — I also want to take this opportunity today turn the tables a bit and put a challenge out to you, the implementers of our national workforce system.

For years, the workforce system hasn't gotten the attention we feel it deserves. So often, we've had a tree-falling-in-the-woods problem. Now, with the President and the Vice President of the United States focused directly on our work, we need to make sure we're doing it as effectively as possible.

You've truly proven yourself these past five plus years, but now I want to challenge you to do even more. To build partnerships and strengthen collaborations. To leverage resources. To align systems. To be innovative. To implement proven models. This is the heart of workforce development. And while I know all the WIBs do it, I think we can all do it even more and even better by more extensively using the tools we already have in our toolbox.

I know this is something we're always talking about, but the name of the game here really is "partnerships." We have examples of really good regional and sector partnerships all across the country -- where WIBs either play the leading role or important supporting roles. I'm talking about partnerships where all the key players — employers, industry associations, community colleges, community-based organizations, unions, philanthropy and the workforce system — are all at the table working together. Not just meeting for coffee and doughnuts once a year, but sustained engagement that builds out industry partnerships and career pathways, so job seekers can punch their ticket to the middle class and so employers can expand and grow.

So, my call to action today is: let's build on this partnership work. Let's expand existing sector and regional partnerships to engage more employers and more workers. Let's develop new partnerships in places or growing industries where there is a need for skilled workers. The WIBs don't always have to be the lead implementers of these partnerships, but you do have to be the glue that allows these partnerships to succeed. You do need to be a leading voice at the table, making sure the partnerships and strategies fit in with the larger efforts taking place in the regional workforce system.

Let me walk through a few of the areas that I think are important contributors to the partnerships work — starting with TAACCCT. I know this one has been a point of concern for many of you, but this is a good example of where the WIBs are not necessarily the leads but are a key partner at the table, serving as the connective tissue for the colleges, workers, and employers. We have some stellar examples — but we need more — of WIBs partnering and driving individual TAACCCT grants. In both Massachusetts and Washington, for example, the grant dollars are funding navigators that are helping workers with job placement, career advancement and other forms of support.

Very soon, we'll announce our fourth and final round of TAACCCT grants. There will be a few new features to this last round that should interest the WIA system. So, here is my call to action on TAACCCT: If you have not already engaged in these grants, I urge you to do so. If you have tried to engage but haven't succeeded, please try again. And if you are already engaged, I urge you to continue and even increase your engagement.

The second area where I want to push you is Registered Apprenticeship. Workers who complete a Registered Apprenticeship earn an average starting salary of $50,000 and make an average of more than $300,000 more in wages and benefits than comparable job seekers. I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago, at an electrical apprenticeship training facility and met a journeyman there who talked about the program as his "golden ticket" to the middle class.

We currently have about 375,000 enrollees in Registered Apprenticeship programs. As I said, we want to double it in five years. And while we are aiming to put more resources into the system, we'll also need your help. Many WIBs have not been able to connect with Registered Apprenticeship, even though it's a sound strategy for improving WIA performance.

First, we need to sign up more employers and other sponsors of Registered Apprenticeship. In Germany, 23 percent of employers participate in apprenticeship. In the U.S. it's less than 1 percent. We need to make sure that business services representatives in your AJCs are talking to employers about the benefits of Registered Apprenticeship and how to sign up. We need to make sure we're making ITA vouchers and OJT resources available to RA programs. And we need to ensure that the training and credentials earned through Registered Apprenticeship are linked to community colleges and degree-bearing programs. We need to make sure pre-apprenticeship programs are of the highest quality and are formally linked to Registered Apprenticeship, so we are engaging and enrolling underserved and disadvantaged populations.

So, here is my call to action on Registered Apprenticeship: Go back home and check if your WIA programs are connected to Registered Apprenticeship. If they aren't, make it happen. Sit down with your local state or federal apprenticeship office, learn more about their programs and how you can integrate them into the WIA system…and how the WIA system can expand apprenticeship.

My third challenge to you is to push the envelope on innovation. Last week we had our Workforce Innovation Fund grantees in town. These grantees are testing and growing promising innovations in sector strategies, career pathways, and even entrepreneurship. I got a chance to learn about the great work of the Pittsburgh and Ohio WIF grantees in nurturing start-ups, expanding small businesses, and ensuring these companies have access to a skilled workforce. We're looking forward to another round of WIF coming out very soon where we can continue to move the needle on innovation.

Speaking of innovation, as you know the Workforce Investment Act was crafted to provide states and localities with the flexibility they need to best serve their markets. We want your ideas on flexibility…and everything else for that matter. We've set up an email account specifically to field your input and benefit from your suggestions and expertise. Don't hesitate to reach out to us at skills@dol.gov.

One of the key tools available within the law is the option to request waivers from statutory or regulatory provisions, so you can better customize your services. I know many states have been able to more effectively deliver services to job seekers and employers when waivers are implemented well.

States and local workforce investment boards should review currently approved waivers and ensure that local areas are making the most of the flexibility already in place.

But I also want to encourage states and local workforce professionals to think creatively about how the WIA waiver authority may be used to spark further innovations.

We welcome new waiver ideas designed to implement or enhance job-driven training and provide additional opportunities for the long-term unemployed and disadvantaged youth. State and local areas have been making good use of sliding scale reimbursement for on-the-job and customized training. Thirty states have waivers that offer reimbursement of up to 90 percent for OJT costs. States can also request a waiver to increase reimbursement based on length of the job seeker's unemployment spell — so far, Michigan is the only state with this waiver. California and Minnesota are using waivers to achieve greater flexibility in summer youth employment programs.

So, here is my call to action on Innovation: Take advantage of the flexibility you already have. Check to see what waivers you have and if you're using them. Talk to us about waivers you don't have and how they may help.

My fourth challenge area to you is systems and program alignment. This is a big focus right now at the federal level and an important component of Vice President Biden's review of job training programs. We're working hard to implode the stovepipes and achieve the integration that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. For example, we're working closely with USDA on their SNAP Employment and Training program, including new resources that will go to states later this year as part of the new farm bill. With HUD, we're making a push on WIB partnerships with public housing authorities, including some new funds for a Jobs Plus program later this year. With the Transportation Department, we are exploring how to better coordinate around infrastructure development and other projects.

So, here is my call to action on Alignment: If you are not already connected, meet with your local SNAP E&T, Public Housing Authority, DOT, and others. Learn more about their programs and how they can be better aligned with your systems.

My final challenge to you is to maintain a sense of urgency about long-term unemployment. Of all the issues I confront in this job, this is the one that really keeps me up at night. This economic recovery has been unique in that long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high, at or near unprecedented levels in fact. We currently have 3.8 million people classified as long-term unemployed, out of work for six months or more.

I've met with so many people who wake up every morning pounding the pavement, firing off resumes and filling out applications…but still haven't been able to find work. These folks aren't sitting at home with their feet up playing video games. They want, more than anything, the dignity of work.

There's no one face of this crisis. I've met long-term unemployed folks who are Wellesley graduates and others with a 9th grade education. And the president has talked about the Catch-22 so many of these folks face: the longer they're unemployed, the less likely an employer is to give their resume a second look; but they've been out of work so long because companies won't give their resume a second look.

The first thing that needs to happen is for Congress to pass an extension of emergency unemployment benefits. By letting them expire in December, Congress has cut off a critical lifeline for more than 2.2 million Americans who are barely staying afloat. In doing so they also choked off an important economic stimulus, as UI claimants spend their checks in the local economy. Bipartisan majorities have gotten this extension done many times in the past, during periods when unemployment was a good deal lower. Congress has to find a way to do it again. I met with a group of long-term unemployed in the Cleveland area on Friday, and one man told me his benefits were cut off at the end of December and it's affecting the child support payments he can make. "By taking my unemployment away," he said, "they are also taking money away from my child."

But what these folks need more than anything is a job. We need to do more to get the long-term unemployed back in the game. That's why the president convened an extraordinary forum at the White House a few months ago, where he secured a commitment from 300 companies to develop best practices for hiring and recruiting the long-term unemployed — to ensure these candidates get a fair shot in the hiring process.

Let me give you one example of how we can eliminate some of the hiring biases. At the White House event, one CEO of a large bank pointed out that his company conducts a credit check on all applicants. But he explained that they've taken a long, hard look at that practice — because if you've been unemployed for 18 months, chances are you've missed a bill or two. After they examined that policy, they concluded that it wasn't the right thing to do, that they were unfairly penalizing people and missing out on some good candidates.

The Labor Department, at the president's direction, is making $150 million available in grants designed specifically to help the long-term unemployed. These Ready-to-Work Partnership grants will help expand and establish innovative collaborations between local governments, employers, and nonprofits, all designed to help workers get the opportunities and skills they need and build bridges to the jobs that require them. I hope you all are taking a look at these grants. Applications are due in June so there is plenty of time to build strong and lasting partnerships around these.

So, here is my call to action on Long-Term Unemployment: Re-double your efforts to engage and employ the long-term unemployed.

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We've come a long way since the depths of the Great Recession. Thanks to the resilience of American workers, the ingenuity of American businesses and the strength of the nation's workforce system...the economy is steadily recovering. We've now had 48 consecutive months of private-sector employment growth to the tune of 8.7 million new jobs. Unemployment has dipped below 7 percent. And so much of the credit for this economic revival goes to you.

But we all know our work is far from done. Too many people out there — people who work hard, take responsibility, and play by the rules — are finding opportunity elusive. Too many people — proud, deserving people — are still on the outside looking in at the American Dream.

My background is in civil rights, where we have not just issues and priorities, but movements. We need to bring the same sense of passion and urgency to skills development. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be — the continued strength of the American middle-class hangs in the balance — so we need a skills movement. And I can't think of a group of people better equipped to lead it than the people in this room.

I will be there marching with you. So will Vice President Biden. So will President Obama. Thank you so much for everything you do…and the greater things we'll do together in the coming years.