Labor Day 2001
U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao Gives Her First Annual State Of The Workforce Address [08/30/2001]
Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao:
Thank you for inviting me here today.
On this Labor Day weekend, we pay tribute to the generations of men and women who built this great land and have given us the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known.
The first Labor Day celebration was in 1882 in New York City. History suggests that it was a member of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners who started this tradition, a man named Peter J. McGuire the first to propose a day to honor "those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."
I have often turned to the Carpenters and Joiners' current president, Doug McCarron for advice. We have a good working relationship. And I am pleased to have Chris Heinz representing the union today. Thank you, Chris, for being here.
Ladies and gentlemen, in 2001, the state of the workforce is strong, skilled, and safe.
But we still have work to do.
At the Council for Excellence in Government, you call the changing times The Next American Revolution. You call it E-Government. It is a workforce in transition: workplaces transformed overnight from physical plants and offices to mobile packages of 21st century technology and work trends that tell us old notions of the workforce cannot meet the needs and expectations of a new generation of workers.
Today, America's working people are embracing changes no one could have imagined even a decade ago. They're rewriting the rules. They are challenging the status quo and daring government to match its pace to theirs.
The result? A workforce that isn't just responding to The next American Revolution but leading it. The American workforce is stronger, safer, and more skilled than any generation before it.
But challenges remain. There are tremors on the economic landscape. Manufacturing is struggling. Dot-coms are scaling back. The sluggish economy needs a jump-start.
President George W. Bush is responding. He's cut taxes, reduced the debt, and expanded markets for American products. He's moved landmark education reforms through the House and Senate, forged a compromise on the Patient's Bill of Rights, and given America the serious energy policy that it needs.
President George W. Bush is improving the lives of America's working families. While others are sitting on the sidelines pointing fingers, President Bush is pointing the way.
And the Department of Labor is responding as well. Our job is to anticipate change and prepare the workforce to meet it. We need to make sure that the policies, programs, and regulations we create support the American workforce. And we need to make sure that they reflect the realities that American workers confront everyday when they walk into their stores, offices, and factories.
One of the first things I did after coming to the Department of Labor was call for a Summit on the 21st Century Workforce. Union leaders, business leaders, non-profit executives, and academics from all across America came to Washington with a single purpose: to focus America's attention on the challenges of the 21st century workforce. President George W. Bush was there and so was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.
Let me tell you what we discovered.
First, yesterday's skills will not fuel tomorrow's economy. Today unemployment has a new meaning. Years ago, unemployment meant no jobs. Today, in many cases, unemployment means a disconnect between the new jobs our economy is producing - and the current skill levels of Americans in the workforce. The skills gap is too wide for too many Americans.
Many Americans want to work; yet many of the jobs created by the economy go begging because employers cannot find qualified workers. Job training and education are more important than ever especially for workers in manufacturing jobs and those just starting out.
Just take a look at the earnings gap between college and high-school graduates in this country in 1979, college graduates made 38 percent more than high school grads. Today, in 2001, college graduates earn 70 percent more.
The unemployment rate for a high-school drop out is nearly four times the rate for a college graduate.
In some cases, America's schools have come up short. And in these cases, our young people are the casualties, victims of a system unable to prepare them to reach for the American dream.
President George W. Bush is changing that with efforts like the President's New Freedom Initiative a program to provide assistive technologies to Americans with disabilities to better enable them to integrate into the workforce and community life. Nearly 2,500 companies are already working to provide assistive technologies to these talented, yet untapped, workers.
Another example is the Department of Labor's Job Corps kids program -- where kids leave the program not just with a trade, but with a high school education as well.
All of this translates into a new pledge to the American workforce. A promise on the part of a new Administration and the Department of Labor to leave no child, no worker, no contributing member of our society behind.
Second, America is facing an incredible shrinking workforce. No one needs to tell us that our workforce is growing smaller. Or that the number of retired Americans is increasing.
I call it the Incredible Shrinking Workforce. Another name for it could be a 21st century labor shortage. The number of people in the labor force ages 25-34 is projected to decline by 2.7 million in the next seven years.
The American workforce needs to keep up, to move faster, to introduce new populations, non-traditional employees into the workforce, and to meet this challenge head-on.
When the nature of work changes, so does the nature of retirement. The American Association of Retired Persons used to have a magazine they called Modern Maturity. Now, the same magazine is called My Generation.
The largest, most demographically influential generation in America's history will soon be exiting the workforce - with time on their side. They will have years that pensions and retirement plans must fund and years that experts on Social Security predict may test our system in unforgiving ways. Government needs to keep up, to move faster, to build solutions more generous and secure pensions, more investment options - into the system now.
In the next seven years, the number of people in the labor force ages 45-64 will grow faster than any other age group. And young people are more fluid, less tied down to one job and one career.
Today, the average 32-year-old has already changed jobs nine times. Gone from broke to flush, from worker to manager, from dreamer to company president and back again - in less time that many of us spent on our first apprenticeship.
What we need now is new solutions. We need ways to use technology to guarantee that everyone who wants to work, can work older workers, workers with disabilities, single moms.
We also need to address help for those who are working harder and longer. Today, only 24 percent of American children have a working father and a stay-at-home mother. We need to help people balance the demands of work and home.
And we can help immigrants. They are the dreamers who came to America the land of opportunity for a new start and a brighter future. America is welcoming more immigrants into the economy than ever before. Just a few miles outside of Washington, a local Wal-Mart employs workers from over 45 different countries, speaking 100 different languages.
There may just be a sliver of hope in the labor shortage: necessity is going to require us to draw from the pool of untapped workers those traditionally left out of the workforce. And that is good for the workforce and it is good for America.
Third, workers are safer and healthier. The American workplace has never been safer than it is today. Statistics released less than two weeks ago tell us work fatalities have decreased even while overall employment has grown.
For the first time since the fatality census was initially conducted in 1992, the number of job-related highway deaths the most frequent accidents are down and declining. This is evidence that government and industry can work hand-in-hand to create the safest workplaces in the world.
Compliance education is working and can be more effective over time. It is a pro-active program that keeps accidents from happening in the first place instead of slapping wrists after the fact. But you can be sure that the Department of Labor will punish those who try to disregard worker health and safety.
But the Department is not resting on these accomplishments. We can do better. For example, workplace fatalities among Hispanic workers are going up. More English language training, more education, more partnerships, and more outreach to community and faith-based groups are needed. I have asked OSHA to form a task force to reach out and educate Hispanic workers and their families about health and safety.
And we can help all workers enjoy a safe and secure retirement.
At the close of the 20th century, a typical worker received more than 25 percent of their compensation in the form of benefits.
In the past, workers depended on well-defined contribution plans when they retired. Today, workers expect and receive individualized, portable 401(k) plans. And this is just the beginning.
American workers must be given the opportunity to trade-up on old expectations. That is, to reach beyond the old promise of a secure retirement toward new possibilities such as options that include safe, personal retirement accounts in Social Security.
As recently as 1960, there were five workers for every Social Security beneficiary. In 50 years, experts predict that only two workers will pay for every beneficiary. We need new ways of thinking about Social Security. And President Bush has a positive solution.
At the Department of Labor, we are taking a leading role in the next American Revolution.
One way is through information. As we all know, information is power. And the Department is providing tools for American workers.
We've created a Department of Labor National Call Center to help employees and employers get accurate information without delays.
We've redesigned the DOL Web site, www.dol.gov providing visitors with the best access to DOL's information and services.
We've developed a compliance E-Mail Initiative on our Web page that guarantees a rapid response to every e-mail inquiry from every DOL customer.
And we've initiated E-Laws advisor an interactive Web-based compliance initiative.
The Department of Labor is changing with the times.
Labor Day 2001. The state of the workforce is strong, skilled, and safe. Challenges abound. We will meet these challenges if we work together as one nation, with one focus: to improve the lives of America's working families.
Thank you and may God bless our work.
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