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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
Greater Los Angeles African-American Chamber of Commerce
19th Annual Economic Awards Dinner
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Good evening, everybody. It's great to be home. Thank you, Gene, for that introduction and your great work on the President's National Export Council. Gene chairs the committee on small and medium-size enterprises. We know that 95 percent of the world's customers live outside our national borders, and we have to compete for them.

We're so lucky to have Gene's expertise in Washington as we work to open new markets to minority businesses. I also want to thank Congresswoman Bass for being here today. But most of all, I want to thank all our job creators who are here. I know how hard you work. I really do. In fact, your job and my job have a lot more similarities than you may think.

I'm the CEO of a $15 billion enterprise. My agency employs 17,000 workers in every state and territory in the country. Just like you, we have to bring products to market. Just like you, we have to procure goods and services — about $2 billion worth a year. Just like you, we must attract and retain the best people to make the business of government work. And just like you, there have been circumstances out of my control that have made me worry about meeting payroll.

I know what keeps you up at night, because it keeps me up at night, too. And I know what drives you to get up in the morning, because it drives me, too. Just like you, I understand the value of a diverse workforce. Just like you, customer service and satisfaction are the most important measures of our success. And I have the toughest customers out there — the American taxpayers. But they aren't just my customers. They're also my shareholders. But I also have an incredible board of directors. Look around this room; I report to you.

The great thing about being a CEO is that you can see a problem and take action. There's one problem that I know you've seen. While the recession touched every state and every community, it hit minority communities the hardest. During the recession, the unemployment rate peaked at 9.3 percent for white workers, but it peaked at 13 percent for Latinos and at nearly 17 percent for African-Americans. So, yes, there have been racial disparities in our recession and our recovery.

I happen to believe elected officials have a responsibility to address this problem — not turn a blind eye to it and definitely not to make the problem worse.

Have you been following what's happening in Alabama? The state legislature passed a law that's running thousands of immigrants out of their homes and out of the state. The law sanctions racial profiling by the police and makes it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to sign a lease or a water bill. Agriculture is a multibillion dollar industry in Alabama. But now, the fields are thinning, crops are going bad and poultry producers don't have the workers they need. International companies are leaving the state for more welcoming places.

The University of Alabama economics department predicts that 70,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in revenue could be lost. I went to Alabama this month. I stood on the outskirts of Selma to remember "Bloody Sunday." I made the point that fighting for civil rights and economic justice is often the very same fight. Targeting people with black skin or brown skin in times of economic stress is not the American way. In America, we rise or fall, we sink or swim, together.

We know there is so much potential in underserved communities. When we unleash that talent, we all benefit.

I grew up right down the 10 Freeway in what some would call an "underserved community" outside of east L.A. called La Puente. I'm the daughter of first-generation immigrant parents. We didn't have a lot of money growing up. But I was taught that no matter where you start in life, you can succeed with an education. I was taught that my gender and my Latino heritage were never a reason to settle for second-best. Sometimes, it just meant we have to work twice as hard.

I've always believed that it's possible to be both pro-worker and pro-business. In fact, our recovery depends on it. Businesses like yours can't succeed without a well-trained workforce. And local economies can't thrive without the good jobs and good incomes that your firms provide.

President Obama believes this, too. He has already signed into law 17 tax cuts for small business owners. He also helped push through the payroll tax cut to give consumers more money to spend at businesses like yours. He cut in half the time it takes the federal government to pay its small business contractors. Those checks are now turned around in two weeks.

He just sent legislation to Capitol Hill to support entrepreneurs like many of you. It would make permanent zero capital gains on small business investments. It would reward job creation with a 10 percent income tax credit on new small business payroll. It would permanently double the tax deduction for startup expenses to $10,000. And it would extend 100 percent depreciation for qualified property through 2012.

At the Department of Labor, we're committed to training a 21st century workforce to help you suceed. And we're proud of our record. Consider this: The Recovery Act provided skills training to more than 183,000 African-American youth. Imagine the Rose Bowl filled to capacity, twice, with black youth. That's who my department has helped.

We have another program dedicated to helping ex-offenders re-integrate into the workforce. One in every nine African-American adults is incarcerated. When someone serves time in our penal system, they shouldn't face a lifetime sentence of unemployment when they are released. We know that employment barriers are a major factor that can lead ex-offenders to turn back to crime. My department has helped 23,000 minorities who've served in our penal system get trained to re-enter the workforce. Imagine the Staples Center filled to capacity with former inmates ready to turn their lives around. That's who we've helped.

We have another program dedicated to helping community colleges and historically black colleges train students for careers in high-growth industries. We've served 54,000 minority workers under this program. Imagine Dodger Stadium sold out, with every seat filled by people who look like you and me. That's who we've helped.

We just awarded a grant to Los Angeles Southwest College. They're creating a new career pipeline for minority youth in south L.A. to pursue careers in the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math. They're reaching down into local high schools to strengthen STEM programs. They are developing curriculums at the community college level. And they're creating industry partnerships to match what's taught in the classroom with the needs of local industry.

One of their industry partners is involved in the Crenshaw corridor. We know this project is so important to the region's economic development. And we want to give young people from south L.A. the skills they need to be engineers and project planners. Gene Hale knows from his work on the Export Council that we need to create more opportunities for minorities to pursue engineering careers. This is an important way to expand economic growth into the African-American community.

I'm also a big believer in GLAAACC's mission of turning "contacts to contracts." At the Department of Labor, we have a dedicated group of procurement specialists that's ready to help you explore opportunities to bid for our contracts. I mentioned earlier that my department buys things, and that we have a procurement budget of more than $2 billion. We ranked No. 1 among all federal agencies in exceeding our goals for minority contracting.

We want to work with black-owned small businesses, and women-owned small businesses, and veteran-owned small businesses, and HUBZone certified businesses. I believe it's crucial to give small businesses and minority-owned business the tools to market yourselves for these contract opportunities. Our specialists can help give you the support and coaching to compete for our contracts.

We know you can do it. You are already doing it. Today in America, minorities own more than 3 million small businesses. Together, they produce about $600 billion in revenues. That's equal to the gross domestic product of Switzerland and Norway combined. The success of minority-owned small businesses is one of the great underreported success stories of our recovery. Businesses like yours are growing at six times the rate of all other firms in the country.

This morning, I was with Magic Johnson at Loyola Marymount for an urban economic forum. One of the things we talked about was how we can support the urban entrepreneur and how urban entrepreneurs can give back when they achieve success. A lot of you are already doing that through programs like the GLAAACC scholarship fund and the Haiti relief fund. So many of you have generously given your money, but I'd like to challenge you today to give something just as valuable: your time and your talent to minority youth.

President Obama and I are making an all-out push to encourage business like yours to create summer job opportunities for young people. We call it our Summer Jobs Plus initiative. Last year, I personally traveled to communities across the country and challenged employers to make a commitment. A number of major corporations signed on, including Wells Fargo, one of tonight's event sponsors. Together, we opened up 80,000 summer job opportunities for America's youth. Many of those who benefited were youth of color. We still have a lot of work to do.

In December, I was proud to report that our youth unemployment rate fell to its lowest rate since before the recession. That's the good news. But the bad news is that the unemployment rate remains 35 percent for African-American teenagers. That means for every two black youth who've found a job, one is still looking. We have to do better.

Last summer, 900,000 African-American youth looked for work — and struck out. This has implications for our long-term economic recovery. Our country needs them working to help Social Security now and to build their savings to benefit from Social Security later. It also impacts families struggling right now. Because in these tough economic times, many young people share their earnings with their families to help them make ends meet.

Summer jobs are sometimes first jobs. There's no substitute for the real-world experience of showing up for work. There's no replacement for the dignity that comes with earning your first paycheck. Companies have already made commitments to create 200,000 summer work opportunities this summer. We hope you will work with your company's leaders to see if they will join our effort, whether that means paid positions, internships, mentoring relationships or job shadowing programs. We hope some of you will make a commitment and help us grow this number.

President Obama believe this is a make or break moment for the middle class and those working to reach it. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more Americans barely get by. Or we can build a nation where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

What's at stake right now aren't Democratic or Republican values, but American values. For the sake of our future, we have to reclaim them. Thank you for this opportunity. And for all you're doing to help our city's youth, our workers and our L.A. economy. Muchisimas gracias.