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The Honorable Alexis M. Herman

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman

National Association of Private Industry Councils

Washington, D.C.

March 2, 1998

Thank you Judith Byrne Riley for your introduction and your leadership as Chair of the NAPIC Board. I also want to acknowledge all of the other Board members and your President Bob Knight. Let me also congratulate this year’s recipients of the Theodore E. Small Workforce Partnership Awards.

And finally, let me thank all of you for being here. But, more importantly, let me thank you for always being there--in our communities, at the grassroots level--helping make America work.

When I think about all that you do, I am reminded of a story my friend Willard Wirtz told me not long ago. Some of you may remember, Willard Wirtz was Secretary of Labor under John Kennedy. And one day while visiting a school, a young girl ran up to him--bubbling with excitement.

She said: “Mr. Secretary, I want you to know I’ve been elected ? Labor Secretary’ of my 4th grade class.”

Secretary Wirtz said: “Well, what do you do?” And she said: “Well . . . I wash the blackboard. I clean the erasers. I pick up all the mess. And on Fridays, everything that’s in the wrong place, I put back in the right place.”

Then she said: “Mr. Secretary, what do you do?” And he just looked at her and said: “That pretty much describes it.”

Actually, I think that pretty much describes NAPIC and what you do. You truly fix problems. And you make sure that we’re always trying to put things in the right place. From the Baltimore City PIC in the east to the Oakland and South Bay PICs in the west--to my own home team from Mobile and the Gulf coast region--there are shining examples of PICs across our country with good ideas and real innovation.

You are at the cutting edge of building the skills of workers . . . building opportunity for business . . . and building better communities for us all.

As your Labor Secretary, I am proud to stand before you today and thank each and every one of you for the hard work you do. This is my first visit with you as Secretary of Labor. Let me just say, this is an exciting time for all of us who are working to improve the lives of working families. Our economy is the healthiest in a generation. President Clinton has proposed the first balanced budget in 30 years.

Unemployment is the lowest in 25 years. Inflation is in check. We’ve created more than 14 million new jobs in the past five years. And the stock market is booming--the Wall Street Bulls are outperforming even the Chicago Bulls.

We are entering the 21st century with opportunity on our side.

But where there is opportunity, there is also challenge. It calls for new thinking and new ideas. It requires just what the theme of your conference states--“New Directions and New Dimensions.”

I know I don’t have to tell you, the world of work is taking on new dimensions every day. Our workplaces are utilizing more technology. We are more globally integrated. In fact, in the next 10 years up to half of all manufacturing jobs will be export-related.

Our workforce is also moving in a new direction. Back in the 1950s, for example, the workforce was 20 percent professional, 60 percent unskilled and 20 percent skilled. Today, the workforce is still 20 percent professional, but there are new jobs that no one even imagined 20 years ago. And the skilled to unskilled ratio has completely reversed. The workforce today is 60 percent skilled and 20 percent unskilled.

And just last month, I asked the Bureau of Labor Statistics to begin issuing data as a part of our monthly unemployment report that shows the correlation between education and employment. It found that a high school dropout is four times more likely to be unemployed than a college graduate.

The message is clear: education pays. And skills matter like never before. And that means one thing. You matter like never before.

You know, we hear a lot about worker shortages in America today. But I’ve spent much of my time talking with workers, business people, and labor leaders around the country. I’d say the real problem is not a worker shortage--it is a skills shortage. And you are the key to the solution.

We need to work together to bridge what the President has called “opportunity gaps” in our communities. We need to match the preparation of our workers with the needs of our employers. And that means we need to focus on developing the right strategies to help workers manage change in today’s global economy. To transform change from an obstacle to an opportunity. From something to avoid to something to embrace. That is my mission. And I believe it’s yours, too.

I want to make sure the Department of Labor is an effective, efficient partner with all of you in helping Americans manage change--whether they happen to be a welfare recipient or a displaced worker . . . a young minority from the inner city or an older worker in Appalachia.

As we do that, my goal is to see that our initiatives are bottom-line and results- oriented. And I want to encourage new ideas that really take our thinking from inside-the-beltway to outside-the-box.

I’d like to talk about that today--and I especially want to talk about two issues that are important to both of us. First, reforming the federal workforce system through the pending legislation now in Congress--what our President has called the GI Bill for America’s Workers. And second, your vital role in helping families move from welfare to work.

First, workforce reform. Together with all of you, we at the Department have reinvented our approach to workforce training and development. We recognized that we had to break free of our old notions of worker training and what that means as we enter the 21st century.

After all, “workforce development reform” is not just about reforming a “system,” it’s about fundamentally changing how we look at the future in a way that is good for workers and good for business. As Senator DeWine has said, we have to look at workforce preparation as an economic tool, not just a social program.

Changing that mind set means changing the framework. It means streamlining --cutting red tape--and providing services that are truly customized for customers.

I know you have worked on various forms of workforce reform legislation for a long time. You may wonder whether we will ever see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I’m here to tell you--the time is now. The next several weeks will be absolutely critical.

Windows of opportunity don’t stay open for long in Washington. Right now, the window is open--but it won’t be long before it closes. This is make or break time. We’ve made progress on job training reform on the administrative level. But we need to codify the reforms that states and local communities have undertaken over the last few years.

As you know, the House passed its bill last year. The Senate may take up its version as early as this month. We’re not there yet, but we have a broad range of constituencies lined up in support. And we’re seeing a remarkable bipartisan coalition in the Senate led by Senators Jeffords, DeWine, Kennedy and Wellstone. I understand that Senators DeWine and Wellstone will be here tomorrow.

It’s also a positive sign that many of the problems that side-tracked workforce development legislation in the previous Congress have been corrected this time around. The bills maintain the investment in dislocated workers. There is no repeal of School-to-Work. And it keeps a strong local focus in the design and implementation of programs.

For our part, the President and the Department of Labor believe that the foundation of workforce reform rests on four cornerstones--many of which you have pioneered. Choice. Integration. Acccountability. And a local focus.

  • First, an emphasis on individual choice and providing customers with the options to make their own decisions rather than having it made for them
  • Second, streamlined service delivery through the institutionalization and expansion of “One Stop Career Centers” that will assure a seamless system at the street level.
  • Third, strong accountability for results at every level.
  • And fourth, a strong community focus that will transform local PICs from operational boards to local labor market policy makers with real responsibility for performance.

I would add that the Senate bill also takes important steps to reform and enhance the current youth job training system.

And as many of you know, this bill is the authorizing mechanism we need to utilize a $250 million advance appropriation to expand the Youth Opportunity Area grants. In simple terms, that means the legislation must be enacted by June 30 or we lose that money.

This is a high priority. Twenty years ago, I was working at the Department of Labor. At that time, the unemployment rate for African-American teenagers was over 30 percent. Two decades later, I am back at the Labor Department, but that statistic hasn’t gone anywhere.

Unemployment for African-American teens is still more than 30 percent. And it’s been at that rate for each and every year for the last twenty years.

It’s time to move a fact like that from the statistics books to the history books.

The key is to keep looking ahead. To get away from the mind set that says: This is how it worked for the past 20 years, so this is how it must work for the next 20. Times have changed. So must we. We have to think about the new populations we are serving--and keep challenging ourselves to do better.

I have seen many of you doing just that as I traveled around the country on a recent ten-city welfare-to-work mission. The President asked me to undertake this tour and report back to him about what is working and what isn’t as we implement welfare reform at the local level.

Well, I can report back to you--as I will report to the President--I am doubly proud we worked hard to see that our private industry councils became responsible for administering the new $3 billion welfare-to-work grants. It was a fight worth waging . Because it was the right thing to do.

I know that if we really believe in an integrated workforce development system, we have to make sure that the resources get to the people who know how to do the job--the people who have the connections to employers--and who know the needs of local labor markets. That means you. And that $3 billion Welfare-to- Work initiative represents the largest new investment in workforce development in decades.

So far, 14 states have submitted plans for formula grants. We’ve sent formula funds to 7 states. Today I am proud to announce that we are awarding grants to Minnesota, Kansas and Hawaii. In the last month, we have sent a total of $180 million to the field. I hope all of you are working with your states to get those plans into us so we can get these much needed resources to you as soon as possible.

I also want to encourage you to work closely with others throughout the grant process and concentrate your efforts on the most innovative projects in your area. Continue to follow in those New Directions.

So as we move into a new century--and move forward with welfare reform and workplace reform--I want to leave you with 3 challenges as we think about how we can best serve our customers.

  • Number one, I urge you to expand your partnerships. Engage more of your business colleagues and your workforce colleagues--but also reach out to faith-based and community-based organizations--and to the labor movement. Bring them to the table to design broad-based labor-market driven comprehensive strategies. Make sure everyone knows who you are and what a great resource you can be.
  • My second challenge is: Innovate. Be creative. Keep questioning. Are we meeting the skill needs of employers? Are we linking people with available jobs in the community? Are we holding training providers feet to the fire--so that every customer knows when the training is complete, they’ll have real marketable skills to move into meaningful jobs? When it comes to the welfare-to-work grants use the new power you have and think outside the box.
  • My third challenge is to always remember the human dimension in what we do.Keep the human face on our work. Because it’s not just about policies or programs--it’s about real people.And your work makes a real difference in their lives.

As I think today about the importance of that work--about your new responsibilities and your ability to make the real difference, I can’t help but recall a story my good friend Bill Bradley--the former Senator from New Jersey--once told me.

You know, just after he was elected he spoke at a large banquet. And as he was sitting, the waiter came up and put one pat of butter on his plate.

So Bill stopped him and said: “Excuse me. But can I have two pats of butter, please?” The waiter said, “Sorry, sir. One pat per person.”

The emcee rushed over and told the waiter, “Perhaps you don’t know who this is. This is Bill Bradley. Senator from New Jersey. Rhodes Scholar. Former Basketball star.”

The waiter said, “Well, perhaps you don’t know who I am.” The emcee said: “As a matter of fact, I don’t. Who are you?” The waiter said: “I’m the guy who controls the butter.”

Well, when it comes to transforming our workforce system and helping workers in our communities, you control the butter.

So keep working hard. Let’s keep working together. As we look to the future, I’m confident that you will continue to do great things for working people. And just like that young Labor Secretary in the 4th grade, I know you will continue to put things in the right place--so that together we can keep America moving in the right direction.

Thank you and God bless you.

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