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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris

Prepared Remarks
Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris,
National Association of Workforce Boards Annual Forum,
Washington, DC,
March 11, 2013

Good morning everyone, and thank you so much. Thank you, Laurie Moran, for that generous introduction and for your leadership. To Ron Painter, the entire board and the entire leadership of NAWB, thank you for everything you do. And thanks to every last one of you in this room for making our workforce investment system such a rousing success. I should be applauding you — for the honorable and innovative work you do on the front lines every day to help grow your local economies, ensuring that the people in your communities have the education and the tools to find good work.

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that unemployment for the month of February was 7.7%, the lowest it's been since December 2008. It's a solid, if unspectacular, figure that reinforces our confidence that the worst of the Great Recession is over and the economy continues to grow.

Without question, we've come a long way since the cataclysmic days of late 2007 and 2008, when the greatest economy in the world suffered a tremendous blow. February marks three uninterrupted years of private sector employment growth, with a total of 6.4 million jobs created over that period. There are other signs of economic vitality — retail sales are up; 73,000 jobs were added in professional and business services last month; housing is rebounding, providing a shot in the arm to construction employment, which experienced its largest one-month jobs increase since March 2007.

Also, the Dow reached a record high last week. And while that's encouraging news, I don't think it would be presumptuous to say that the typical client of our American Job Centers doesn't have a thick investment portfolio. We still need to do more to make sure this recovery continues... and that it works for everyone. Corporate profits are high, but for more than a decade wages and incomes for most American workers have been stagnant or declined.

The truest measure of our economic success as a nation is not abundance, but widely-shared prosperity and a robust middle class.

An economy that grows not from the top down, but from the middle out — that's America at its strongest; that's President Obama's North Star. And he knows, I know and you know that skills development for America's workers is essential to getting us there.

In his State of the Union address, the President outlined a clear and ambitious agenda to invest in the middle class and grow our economy. The first pillar of that plan is to make the United States a magnet for jobs, and he laid out specific steps for how we can do it: new manufacturing partnerships; investments in clean energy, a commitment to upgrading and rebuilding our infrastructure; rebuilding our housing sector; encouraging fair trade; and restructuring tax incentives so that we reward companies that create jobs here instead of shipping jobs overseas.

But the President also noted that no jobs agenda can succeed without successful workforce investment; or, as he put it, we must "also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs."

President Obama understands the fundamental facts that you live every day —

  • that more than ever what Americans earn depends on what they learn;
  • that skills are the leading edge of economic development for communities across the country;
  • that when multinational companies make siting decisions, they're looking for communities that can generate a pipeline of talent capable of producing 21st century goods and services; and
  • that globalization and technological innovation are making skills and training an even more urgent imperative than ever.

American workers are ready, willing and able. No question about it. There's no challenge they shrink from, no skill they can't master. They just need their government to be a reliable partner; they need us to invest in their potential.

And that's what the president intends to do.

He continues to make increasing the capacity of our community colleges a top priority. Just a few weeks ago I was in Charlotte to visit Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) where they are doing extraordinary things to build a state-of-the-art workforce. They've built one of the most comprehensive community college-employer partnerships in the nation. Local businesses, with deep involvement from the local workforce board, give input on curriculum development; serve on advisory committees to monitor training programs; engage other employers to partner with CPCC; and, most importantly, hire CPCC graduates.

The Department of Labor has provided some of the money that made CPCC's innovative approach possible. And we've made similar investments at institutions around the country with our Trade Adjustment Act Community College to Career Training program. The TAACCCT program is based on a very simple, common-sense idea: community colleges and workforce boards must partner with local companies and business associations — to find out what skills those companies need workers to have. We've already awarded a billion dollars under this program in recent years, and soon we'll release a call for grant applications that makes another $500 million available.

But there's no reason that skills-based learning can't start before higher education begins. Citing the German model of graduating high school students with the equivalent of a community college technical degree, the President proposed in the State of the Union a modernization of American high schools to assure their graduates have the technical skills they need to get, keep, and succeed in the jobs of the 21st Century. If postsecondary institutions can partner with local businesses to align their curricula with the needs of employers, why can't high schools do it too? Let's give our young people a leg up as early as possible — by designing high school classes in the disciplines that will lead to good jobs.

These kinds of partnership are nothing new to you, of course. They're at the very heart of what our Workforce Investment Boards do. Right before I went to Charlotte, I was in Cleveland where I visited ArcelorMittal's steel mill. Let me tell you — this isn't your grandfather's manufacturing plant. It's a high-tech, sophisticated operation that produces 3.8 million tons of steel each year that's used primarily in American-made cars and Whirlpool washing machines. Every aspect of production is run by intricate, computer-driven systems that are operated by highly skilled members of the United Steelworkers of America.

How did they get such productive workers? By partnering with Employment Connection, Cleveland's Workforce Investment Board, which has been instrumental in ArcelorMittal's success. Together, Employment Connection and ArcelorMittal collaborated with area community colleges to create a program that trained individuals to meet the specific needs of the plant.

To ensure that Employment Connection and the rest of our workforce boards nationwide can continue their outstanding work, the Obama Administration is pushing aggressively for the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. WIA built this sturdy infrastructure 15 years ago. It's time to reform it, make it even more effective, and to use it as a launching pad for a 21st Century economy fueled by the best prepared workers in the world.

It's a mistake for a piece of legislation that is so important to the future of America's middle class to be silently passed along on a year-to-year ad hoc basis. Congress needs to act, and to do so in a way that builds on the workforce system's strengths and successes, like the one I saw in Cleveland and many others I have seen across the United States. WIA reauthorization must address the system's challenges, promote innovation, and proliferate best practices. And we want to streamline the system, but it must be done in the right way.

President Obama has laid out five key principles to strengthen the public workforce system in WIA reauthorization legislation:

First, we must streamline and improve services. Our state and local partners need flexibility as they work to ensure easy access to clear information for jobseekers, workers, and employers.

Second, the public workforce system should provide a true "one-stop shopping" experience. Regardless of any barriers to employment, every American should have access to the full range of services they need to succeed in their communities when they access the workforce system.

Third, our economic development strategies must be regional and industry-driven. To put it simply, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. This is why business-led, locally-controlled and delivered workforce services have proven so effective: by focusing on employer-based solutions to regional workforce gaps, we can simultaneously strengthen burgeoning industries while preparing workers for labor markets that may stretch beyond one town, state or country.

Fourth, we must ensure strong accountability throughout the public workforce system. We need reliable, consistent metrics so that workers, employers and my Labor Department staff know which services and training-providers work best. And the American people need to feel confident they're getting their money's worth.

Lastly, our public workforce system must promote innovation and replicate best practices. As with most things these days, we're going have to do more without the promise of additional resources, so we need a process of continuous improvement and innovation. We should provide incentives for creative solutions in the public workforce system, disseminating information about successful strategies so that other communities can benefit from them.

One of the bills that's been offered, The Workforce Investment Act of 2013, offers a solid approach that implements many of these principles. It establishes a Community College to Career Fund, a Workforce Innovation and Best Practices grants program, and it will place a greater emphasis on the attainment of industry-recognized credentials.

By contrast, the SKILLS Act, which is headed to the House floor for a vote this week, addresses some of these principles but falls short on far too many others. For example, it fails to guarantee funding to address the needs of jobseekers with barriers to employment. This means, in all likelihood, that numerous populations with specialized needs — like veterans, people with disabilities, disadvantaged youth, migrant and seasonal farmworkers — wouldn't receive the range of services they need to find a good job. Some of those populations might not be served at all. And the SKILLS Act doesn't do enough to ensure that key stakeholders' voices will be heard; nor does it succeed in promoting continuous innovation, or the identification and replication of effective practices.

When people ask me to describe the nation's workforce investment system, the best answer I can give is that there's no one answer. It depends on where you are and what local conditions demand. The whole system is predicated on the basic truth that Milwaukee is different from Macon and the strategies that work in Tucson may not make sense for Toledo.

There's no cookie-cutter for successful skills development. It's all about local leaders tailoring solutions to local economic conditions and nearby workers. This is a grass-roots system, a bottom-up solution, not a top-down mandate. This is your system — yours, your local employers, and your local workers.

The grass roots character of the system is what makes it work. So, too, the fact that it brings all stakeholders together in pursuit of shared solutions to common problems. And the fact that local businesses — the people who create the jobs — have a seat at the table is equally instrumental to the system's success.

What we must do is to modernize, streamline and strengthen the public workforce system that has done so much for so many — more than 2,700 American Job Centers serving roughly 33 million participants a year. There is a right way and a wrong way to approach reform. The SKILLS Act is the wrong way.

Speaking of the wrong way to do things... let me say a few words about the so-called "sequester."

These arbitrary, across-the-board cuts, which began taking effect at the beginning of this month, are yet another obstacle in the path of our economic recovery and the President's efforts to strengthen and expand the middle class.

This is no way to get our fiscal house in order. The President has offered a balanced deficit reduction plan that asks the wealthy to do their fair share, proposes a serious effort at entitlement reform, but doesn't cut the services middle-class families need. It is hard to justify choosing sequester instead of asking millionaires and billionaires to contribute even more by closing unproductive tax loopholes.

This is the wrong path for workers; it is the wrong path for employers who need a skilled workforce to grow their businesses; it is the wrong path for the American economy.

We will do our very best to minimize the impact on American families who depend on the Labor Department's work. We are cutting back on lower priority activities and searching for efficiencies everywhere we can in order to maintain mission-critical programs. We will work our hardest, just as we have for the last 100 years, on behalf of workers and their families.

But I want to be honest: there isn't much that I can do. The sequester is a butcher's cleaver, not a scalpel.

The economy is better than it's been, but not where we want it to be. More importantly, it's not as strong as we know it can be. A rising, thriving middle class is the engine of American economic growth, so we must do everything possible to build our economy from the middle class out, not from the top down.

The President understands that building workers' skills is a critical ingredient in that formula. He's counting on us to do more and to do it better. But no one's counting on us more than ordinary Americans looking for work and the employers who need skilled workers — they are our customers; they are our partners. Our job — yours and mine — is to give them a workforce system that serves their needs, and helps the American economy to achieve everything it can.

Thank you very much for everything you do.