Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 82nd Winter Meeting, Washington, DC, January 23, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning everyone, and thank you for that warm welcome. Tom Cochran, thank you for so many years of service and leadership at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

It's an honor to follow Mayor Fischer of Louisville. I had the privilege of being in his city a few months ago, where I visited the Ford plant and heard firsthand the remarkable story of how the company worked with the United Auto Workers — not just to save the plant when it was on the verge of being shuttered, but to make it more productive than ever. They used to employ 900 people there; now it's 4,400 and growing. A great example of labor-management partnerships... of rejecting the false choices that say we can be pro-worker and pro-business but not both... of finding common ground and embracing win-win solutions.

I was in California yesterday, talking and listening to community leaders and business executives about the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform. But I took a redeye back — just landed a few hours ago — because I didn't want to miss this opportunity to meet with all of you. (Even though, I might add, it was in the mid-60s and very pleasant in San Francisco).

In fact, it's six months to the day since I started my tenure as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and I couldn't think of any better group to mark this anniversary. Because American cities — from Spokane to Schenectady; from Grand Rapids to Corpus Christi; from Mountain View, California to Rocky Mount, North Carolina — are the engine that will drive American prosperity in the coming decades.

I have experience in local government, so I know that you live where the rubber meets the road. Congress can adjourn, for example, without acting on an extension of unemployment benefits... but in your city, vital services have to be delivered every day.

And I know that you are some of the most dynamic public policy innovators and incubators we have. When President Obama says that change often comes to Washington rather than from Washington... he's talking in large measure about the leadership coming out of our nation's cities.

We don't have much time together, so I want to focus primarily on one major theme. This is something that's a high priority for me and a high priority for my boss — you'll hear more about it when he addresses the nation five days from now. I'm talking about the importance of giving Americans the skills and training they need to secure good jobs, climb ladders of opportunity and live out their highest and best dreams.

Skills — it's the key to a strong economy and a thriving middle class. We have the most talented and resilient workforce in the world. There's no challenge they shrink from, no opportunity they won't embrace. But we have to invest in them. We have to create more career pathways for them, more opportunities to acquire the credentials that employers demand. We need to build our human capital — and we have to do it in a smart, strategic, efficient way.

And that means working closely with the private sector, to understand exactly what kinds of workers, with which kinds of skills and certifications, they're looking for. The key is deep and sustained employer engagement at the federal, state and local levels.

I'm glad that, of all the sessions at this conference, you asked me to take part in this "Mayors and Business Leaders" plenary. Because, contrary to the conventional wisdom, I believe business outreach is one of my most important functions as Secretary of Labor. Because, if you want to create jobs, you have to talk to the job creators. And when I talk to them, they tell me that the biggest obstacle to growing their companies is a shortage of workers with the requisite skills.

So, our skills agenda has to be industry-driven — otherwise you end up training people to make widgets even though no one in the economy is hiring widget-makers. We already are doing this in many contexts. For example, industry partnerships are the signature of our community college grant program that has invested nearly $1.5 billion over the last three years to create a pipeline of skilled workers in communities nationwide.

But we need a larger culture shift. We need to articulate a broad vision around the imperative of a skills infrastructure that is responsive to — and, in part, built by — the business community. We need to build a movement around this issue, one that rallies chambers of commerce and labor unions alike around the cause.

When you hear top business executives interviewed, you'll often hear them talk about the importance of opening export markets, or about the importance of fixing the broken immigration system. Both very important to be sure. But I hope they will start talking more about the importance of skills and the workforce — because it's essential to their long-term competitiveness.

But to build that movement, we need to address the tree-falling-in-the-woods challenge we face. The majority of businesses don't know that the Labor Department is out there, with programs and resources that can help them identify the workers they need. As a whole federal government, we need to do a better job of getting the word out; making ourselves available; and also streamlining the delivery of our services.

Too often we're broken down into stovepipes. We've got half a dozen federal agencies with funding streams available to help develop a state-of-the-art workforce. But we're not always collaborating in the most efficient way possible. When people have a problem, they don't have a Labor Department problem or an Education Department problem or a HUD problem — they just have a problem. And they expect us to work together to solve it.

The federal government needs to model a system that is unified and streamlined. And the role of the Labor Department is to be the quarterback of this system, huddling with other agencies, partners and other stakeholders, leading the team down the field toward the goal line of a stronger workforce, a stronger middle-class and a stronger economy.

We also recognize that any effective workforce development strategy has to be locally driven, that the success of the system depends on local innovation. We're not interested in doing this in a heavy-handed, top-down manner. We know that every place is different and needs an approach tailored to its unique economic characteristics and demographic realities.

In every city and community nationwide, we want to help you strengthen partnerships — between employers, colleges, labor unions, workforce boards, community organizations, and economic development entities — that create a well-aligned workforce investment system.

Thank you again for this opportunity. As I mentioned, you'll surely hear more about President Obama's skills agenda during the State of the Union address next Tuesday night. He believes — and I believe — that it can't be successful absent your leadership and partnership. My door is always open, and there are always seats around my table. I look forward to working with all of you in the years ahead.