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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
Esperanza Academy Charter High School
Philadelphia, PA
Thursday, October 28, 2011

Buenas tardes. Good afternoon, Esperanza! I'm so excited to be here today and so impressed by what I've seen so far. Thank you, Reverend Cortes, for inviting me, and thank you, Congressman Fattah, for being here, too. But most of all, thanks to all of you for inspiring me, for working so hard, for setting an example for others, for preparing yourselves for an incredible future.

As the Secretary of Labor, a big part of my job is to help people in this country get the skills they need to find good jobs, but you guys are helping yourself. As a member of President Obama's cabinet, I go all over the country to meet with workers and people looking for work. And do you know my four favorite letters are? S-T-E-M

Wherever I go, I talk about the great job opportunities out there in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. If you don't know this already, let me tell you right now: You are on the right track. Actually, you're a step ahead of the curve. The education you are getting here at Esperanza is going to help you achieve big things in life.

If you watch the news, you know that these are challenging times for our economy. A lot of folks are looking for work. And the big debate in Washington right now is about the best way to help the unemployed find good jobs.

Here's the truth: If you have a STEM education and continue along this path, you are going to have a big leg up on the competition. America needs more scientists, more engineers, more researchers, more technicians. Even fields like health care and business are desperately looking to hire people with the STEM skills you're getting here at Esperanza.

Over the next seven years, there will be 2 ½ million job openings in the STEM occupations. That's more than any other field. And do you want to know what else? People who work in these jobs make a lot more money than people who don't. On average, if you major in a STEM field in college, you will make a half-million dollars more over your life than people in other majors. That's some serious dough. So keep hitting the books. The skills you're learning here and in college will set you up for life.

I'm not just telling you this as a member of the President's cabinet. I'm telling you as someone who has been where you are. I was a good student in high school, but I didn't think about college. No one in my family ever had. One of my high school counselors actually told me I wasn't college material. He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested that I become a secretary. As it turns out, he was half right: I was suited to be a Secretary. The Secretary of Labor.

I grew up in an industrial town called La Puente outside of Los Angeles. I grew up in the shadows of polluted landfills and toxic dumps. My Mom immigrated to this country from Nicaragua to escape poverty. She stayed home for many years to raise my brothers, sisters and me. She later went to work in a toy factory to help my family make ends meet. My parents and my friends' parents went to work in conditions that were dirty and unsafe. Dad was from Mexico and worked on a farm, on the railroads, and in a battery recycling plant.

My parents made many sacrifices so my six siblings and I could live up to our potential and achieve whatever our talents would allow. Though our family could not afford much, we always had each other. My parents knew that the only way for us to have a better life was to get an education.

My father told me, "Hold your head up high, and remember to respect yourself and others. Be proud of your Latino heritage." My high school career counselor, Mr. Sanchez, told me not to listen to that other counselor. He put a college application and the financial aid forms in my hand and told me to fill them out. I wouldn't be standing before you today if I hadn't taken his advice and followed my dreams.

President Obama has made it a top priority to ensure you can afford a college education. Just two days ago, he announced a plan called "Know Before You Owe." For students who come from modest means, it will cut hundreds of dollars a month off your college loan payments when you graduate.

There are many resources out there to make sure you can continue your education. I went to college because I made it my business to learn about the Pell Grant program. I learned about college scholarships. I was a work study student and helped pay my own way. Working part-time and studying for my classes was a lot of hard work, but, muchachos, that's how we get ahead.

I was the first person in my family to go to college, but guess what?  I wasn't the last. I took my sisters to the library almost every day. They asked me what they should study in college. I told them to study science. Today, two of my sisters are engineers. I hope many of you will become engineers someday, too, because America needs your skills. And I hope you will be role models like I was for my sisters — for your siblings, your peers and for the youth in your community. We need more people who look like you and me to be engineers, chemists, inventors and explorers.

Raise your hand if you've heard of Jose Hernandez. Jose was the son of humble farm workers who immigrated here from La Piedad, Michoacán, in western Mexico. As a boy, Jose moved around a lot. His parents traveled from town to town in California harvesting crops. For some time, they labored in the sugar beet fields in a farming town called French Camp. Jose's dad would come home — all hot and sweaty — after working in the fields all day, and he would say to Jose: "Hijo, I can't make you go to college, but if you don't, this is your future."

So Jose put 100 percent of himself into his schoolwork. He graduated from college with honors. He then got his master's degree in electrical and computer engineering. Then he went to work in a lab and helped develop a new digital imaging system to detect breast cancer. But Jose wasn't satisfied. He said to himself, "You know what? With my education, the sky's the limit." And that wasn't just a figure of speech.

Ten years ago, he went to work for NASA. And two years ago, he flew to the stars. In 2009, as a crew member aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, Jose went into outer space. Jose, a son of immigrant parents, didn't learn to speak English until he was 12 years old. But that didn't matter, because he became the first Mexican-American to go to outer space and Tweet — in Spanish — about the world below.

They call him "Astro Jose." He's a hero of mine. He's living proof that our people can accomplish anything. In August, he threw out the first pitch at a Texas Rangers major-league baseball game. And two weeks ago, with President Obama's support, Astro Jose announced he is running for the United States Congress. His campaign slogan is "from plowshares to the stars."

Amigos y amigas, you can do anything you set your minds to. You are limited only by the constraints of your imagination. You are the future of this country, and I'm proud to stand before you today with a message: Keep going. Keep working. Let nothing stand in your way. Make your parents, your teachers and your country proud. Muchismas gracias! Si se puede!