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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
Robert M. Mill Lecture Series
Pittsburgh Labor-Management Discussion
Community College of Allegheny County

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Good afternoon, everyone. It's wonderful to be back in Allegheny County.

Let me start by thanking Leo for that introduction and for your amazing leadership. If you want to know how to build a model labor-management partnership, ask Leo about the United Steelworkers' Institute for Career Development. For nearly a quarter century, Leo's union has been working side by side with the major steel companies. Together, they've created 70 different career development programs at learning centers across the country. It's a great example of an industry that's investing in its own. Rather than looking for highly skilled workers to hire, the steel industry is creating these workers from within its own ranks.

Leo has made educational benefits for his members a cornerstone of his contract negotiations, and now we're seeing steelworkers receive training in everything from plumbing to engine repair to geothermal training for new green jobs. I talk a lot as Labor Secretary about how important it is that workers have a "seat at the table." Leo has used his seat to forge partnerships with management to invest in cutting-edge job training initiatives. So thank you, Leo, and please keep up the great work.

I also want to thank Dr. Johnson for your leadership here at CCAC, and I want to recognize Robert Mill for everything you've done for this college. They tell me you were a member of this school's first-ever graduating class, and you were the first-ever student body President back in 1966. I understand they call you "Mr. CCAC." I'm going to call you that too, if it's OK, because no one has done more to help this school and this community adapt to the 21st century economy. I also want to acknowledge Robert's wife, Candice, for her incredible work with this school's foundation. Thank you, "Mrs. CCAC." It's because of leaders like both of you that Allegheny County is such a great place to live and learn.

I also want to thank Morgan O'Brien and all of our industry leaders present today. Your focus on state-of-the-art worker training is making such a big difference here in Greater Pittsburgh and across America. Here's an amazing statistic: Joint labor-management apprenticeships have leveraged more than $750 million dollars in private-sector investment. That's a remarkable number.

And I have to brag on IBEW, because this union runs some of most successful apprenticeship programs anywhere. Thank you, Michael Dunleavy of IBEW Local #5, for your union's leadership. Michael, I have to tell you: I've visited IBEW apprenticeship programs all across this country. I know your track record. Your union is not only giving workers the skills to succeed, you're giving them the training they need to stay safe on the job. So thank you for that.

Finally, I want to acknowledge all of our union members in the house today: IBEW, the Carpenters, our Operating Engineers, our Sheet Metal Workers, Ironworkers and Plumbers … all of our union friends. Thanks for never giving up, no matter how hard the fight has been — and I know it's been hard. But we've come a long way since the bottom fell out of our economy in 2008.

When I became Labor Secretary three years ago, our economy was in a free fall. The financial system was on the verge of meltdown. Entire industries were being threatened. Credit had frozen. People's retirement savings were in jeopardy. Middle class workers didn't know whether they were going to get a paycheck or a pink slip on pay day.

In Washington, we heard a lot of different ideas about who was to blame and what it would take to put us on the road to recovery. Some people argued that in a time of rapid globalization, America could either have economic growth, or we could have strong labor unions. But not both. They said to compete against countries where workers had no rights, we had to take away the rights of our own. They wanted to win a new race to the bottom.

Fortunately, President Obama understood that organized labor helped create the American middle class. This administration knew labor and management could sit across the table and retool together, and they could do it while protecting the bottom line and workers on the assembly line.

Thanks to the policies of this administration, we've now created 4 million jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen from double digits back to 8.2 percent last month. The manufacturing sector alone has created 470,000 jobs since January 2010. And, of course, the auto industry has been saved. The auto workers and Big Three have shown us that anything's possible when management and labor put their heads together and collaborate.

Today, GM is back on top as the number one automaker in the world, with the highest profits in its 100-year history. Chrysler is growing faster in America than any other car company. Ford is investing billions in American plants and factories. All told, the auto industry has added more than 200,000 new jobs over the past two and a half years. And they're not just building cars again — they're building better cars.

We're putting in place the toughest fuel economy standards in history for our cars and pickups. That means cars will average nearly 55 miles per gallon by the middle of the next decade — almost double what they get today.

American auto companies have succeeded by working with, not against, their unionized workforce. Industry succeeds when labor sits at the table with management and ideas are shared. The big lesson of the auto industry's turnaround was summed up pretty well by Bob King, the President of UAW.

He said: "The public is looking at us now to see if we've learned anything from the crisis or if we'll return to business as usual. Our union has learned many lessons from the crisis. The 21st century UAW views management not as the enemy, but as a partner."

That's the right approach. When labor and management play on the same team, they are unbeatable. I've seen this in my own life. Some my earliest memories were of trying to get workers and management on the same page.

My father was a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. When I was in ninth grade, my dad would come home at the end of the day and ask me to sit with him at our kitchen table. From his pockets, he would pull pieces of paper with writing in Spanish on them. They were notes given to him by his co-workers. There were all sorts of things scribbled on them: grievances about health and safety practices at the plant and ideas about how to improve the efficiency and productivity of the line.

He'd ask me to translate them into English for him. At first, I didn't understand what they were. When I asked, he explained: "They are the voice of the workers." He said that the paper scraps started a conversation between the union and management. He told me it was a way to get them together "at the table."

I've often recalled those talks with my father. Because today we're recovering from the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, and our long-term prosperity depends on working together to train our 21st century workforce.

That's my No. 1 priority as the Labor Secretary. Much of our political debate today is focused on creating jobs. This challenge is foremost on my mind. But creating jobs is only part of the puzzle. We also must do more to help job-seekers land jobs that are already open. Even at a time of 8.2 percent unemployment, there are 3 million unfilled job openings in this country. Think about that: Three million jobs unfilled right now. That's pretty incredible.

When I talk with employers today, many complain about a skills mismatch. Sometimes, the problem is that local workers don't have the STEM skills they're looking for. I'm talking about science, technology, engineering and math. We need more experts in these disciplines to succeed in the hi-tech 21st century economy. So my department is working with community colleges, with vocational technical schools and state workforce agencies. We're collaborating with industry partners and community-based organizations. And we're taking our apprenticeship model and growing it into new areas and new industries.

The jobs of today — and the jobs of tomorrow — require new skills and new training. There's an old saying: You're never too old to stop learning. Well, that has never been more true. Over the next decade, nearly half of all U.S. job openings will be for "middle-skill" jobs. These are positions that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. These are white-collar, blue-collar and green-collar jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and they provide pathways to better-paying careers in every sector of the economy.

Last year, I hosted a very special event on the National Mall in the nation's capital. We celebrated 100 Years of Registered Apprenticeships. I've often called this program one of America's best-kept secrets. But thanks to many of the unions and industry leaders represented here today, the secret is getting out. Last year, more than 400,000 Americans were pursuing a career by participating in one of 25,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the country.

Employers tell me they need skilled welders. They tell me they need good electricians. They need workers with these kinds of hard skills. But young people — especially in manufacturing — don't get to tinker the way they used to. These days, everything is modular. When something breaks, an entire circuit board is simply replaced. So these apprenticeships give workers a chance to get hands-on instruction from a mentor, and they give workers a paycheck, too. We call it "learn while you earn." In this tough economy, it's so critical for companies to invest in skills training for their workers — and to help their workers make ends meet while they learn.

Apprentices should be the people that build 21st century roads and high speed rail. They should be the ones installing solar panels and other green technologies. Apprenticeships are an incredible example of what can be achieved when the private sector, the public sector and organized labor come together.

Here in Allegheny County alone, there are nearly 100 different registered apprenticeship programs. Thousands of local workers are currently part of a registered apprenticeship supported by my department. Once they graduate, they will have a credential that no one can take away. And graduates will earn $50,000 per year on average!

We know these programs can be very competitive. So my department is also encouraging
partnerships run by CBOs that prepare workers to participate in apprenticeships. One here in Pittsburgh is called New Century Careers. They've trained 1,000 Pennsylvanians for entry-level manufacturing jobs, and they've helped another 7,000 existing manufacturing employees upgrade their skills.

Their program begins in the local high schools. They begin by engaging the minds of our young people. They just hosted a competition where young people learn all about advanced manufacturing in a unique way. The young people create robots that battle each other in "gladiator-style" competitions. Students learn about problem-solving, innovation, and working on a team, and they have a lot of fun, trying to create the toughest robot in town.

New Century Careers goes into the inner-city to recruit young minorities and women to get them excited about careers in advanced manufacturing. My department knows how important it is to have well-qualified workers here in "Carbide Valley." The work being done here with powdered metals is in our vital national interest. We know that the products being made here are used in defense applications, satellites, medical devices and telecommunications. These jobs can't be out-sourced to other countries, because they require highly skilled workers that only our first-rate colleges can train.

So I want to close my remarks by talking a little bit about the role of community colleges like CCAC. I know all about the great promise of our nation's community college system. The first elected office I ever held was on the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees in California. I know there's so much talent in our community college system. Community colleges are at the center of President Obama's strategy to help every American receive at least one year of post-secondary education.

This administration has proposed an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund. Under the President's plan, our community colleges will work with their industry partners to develop training programs that meet the needs of local job-creators. This means investing in world-class facilities and labs, in outstanding professors, and internships and apprenticeships to give workers real-world experience, no matter what their income level.

I recently went on a cross-country bus tour with Dr. Jill Biden to see the innovative partnerships happening at our community colleges. In Dayton, Ohio, we visited a health care company working with the local community college and IUE-CWA. They're training union members to manufacture life-saving medical devices.

In western Kentucky, apprentice Plumbers and Steamfitters are partnering with the local community college to learn how to install green plumbing systems and solar heating panels.

We stopped at Roane State Community College outside of Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee. Some of the brightest minds in the country are hard at work creating a low-density carbon fiber that can be used to operate everything from airplanes to pickup trucks to wind turbines. This carbon fiber can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil. If they succeed, they will help preserve our planet, save consumers a fortune on fuel costs, and put local residents back to work. And they could also make the Tennessee Valley a global leader in a cutting-edge field. That's what's at stake.

If we invest in our greatest asset — the American worker — there's no challenge we can't meet. That's why what's happening at CCAC is so important. That's why the apprenticeship programs you're leading are such an important priority for this administration. And that's why I'm happy to be here today to say "Keep up the great work."

If we can replicate what's happening right here in Allegheny County, then we will build a 21st century economy that's truly built to last. Thank you, and God bless.