Thank you, Hector [Flores, National President, LULAC].
I am delighted to be able to join you for this Unity Luncheon. I am pleased to have received LULAC’s President’s medal earlier this year at the New York LULAC Women’s Conference. And we look forward to developing the same productive relationship with LULAC’s new National President, as we had with outgoing National President Hector Flores.
Today I’d like to share with you a snapshot of our economy, and discuss the ways we have been working together to protect workers and promote opportunity in traditionally underserved communities. And then I’d like to talk about the President’s plan for comprehensive immigration reform.
First, let me start by giving you a snapshot of our country’s economic progress. The national unemployment rate last month was 4.6 percent — the lowest level in nearly 5 years. And that’s more than a point lower than the average 5.7 percent unemployment rate of the 1990s!
Our economy is one of the most vibrant of all industrialized nations. It clocked in at an average annual growth rate of 3.5 percent in 2005. And it grew at a strong 5.6 percent annualized rate in the 1st quarter of 2006. Our economy has created 5.3 million net new jobs in the last two-and-half years. Contrast this with Europe where job growth has been stagnant over the last 10 years, and where Germany and France, for example, have persistent unemployment rates nearing 10 percent! In America, more people are working than ever before.
And I’ve also got some good news for those of you with college students in the family. You’ll be glad to hear that this year’s job market is the strongest since 2001!
Demand for workers is especially high in the business, computer, engineering, education and health-care fields. In fact, our country will need more than 3 million new workers in the health-care sector, including 1.2 million registered nurses, in the next 10 years. Other growing sectors include aerospace, biotechnology, energy, financial services, homeland security, information technology, and skilled trades.
A clear trend is emerging. Our country is transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. The majority of new jobs created require higher skills and more educational attainment. And they also require some understanding of technology and computers. In addition, more than 90 percent of the new occupations being created require some kind of post-secondary education. Post-secondary education can be a 4-year college degree, a 2-year degree from a community college or specialized training in the skilled trades.
Because the majority of these new jobs require higher skills and more education, by definition, they are higher and better paying jobs.
The challenge for our country is the skills gap. There are workers seeking jobs but lacking the right skill sets. And, there are employers unable to find skilled workers.
So, in the 21st century workforce, education is more important than ever before. Please tell young people that it’s so important to stay in school and graduate. Their lifelong earnings will depend upon this.
For example, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts is 50 percent higher than that of high school graduates. And high school graduates earn 50 percent more on average than high school dropouts.
That’s why it’s important to emphasize to young people to stay in school and get a good education. Then, once out of school, it’s important to continue to learn, get training and acquire new knowledge.
Closing the skills gap and helping our nation’s workers remain competitive in the 21st century are central to the mission of the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s why this Administration has launched many special initiatives to help traditionally underserved communities access new opportunities and remain competitive. And LULAC has been a valued partner in helping us reach out and serve your community more effectively.
For example, after Hurricane Katrina, the Labor Department moved quickly to bring in additional resources to increase its presence in the Gulf region. The Department is especially concerned that vulnerable immigrants working there know their rights, and that they are fully and fairly compensated for their work.
I’m very proud that the Department has recovered more than $1 million in back wages for workers in hurricane-related cases. And the Department asked federal agencies to withhold more than $2 million from contractors and subcontractors until workers are paid the wages they are due. The Department has also hired and detailed more Spanish-speaking enforcement officers to the region. And it has widely distributed information about health, safety and wages in Spanish. In fact, I hope you will visit the Labor Department sponsored booth in the exhibit hall. It has a sampling of the Spanish language publications the Department has produced on worker health, safety, workers rights, equal opportunity and retirement security.
But, government alone cannot communicate to everyone. So with the assistance of LULAC, the Department will be able to strengthen the outreach and effectiveness of Wage and Hour enforcement in the Hispanic community. It is this Administration’s policy that all workers are protected by our nation’s health, safety and wage laws — regardless of their status.
Another key program, which I launched, is the Hispanic Worker Initiative. The goal is to help Hispanic American workers improve their English proficiency and gain the skills required in rapidly growing industries.
An important collaborator in this effort is one of LULAC’s sister organizations, SER — Jobs for Progress National, Inc. SER’s President and CEO Ignacio Salazar is here today.
SER is a strategic partner in many job-related efforts. In February, SER successfully competed for a $1.1 million grant from DOL to fund a work-based English skills program in Texas. This program will prepare more than 2,400 Hispanic workers for careers in the hospitality industry.
Amidst this economic backdrop, President George W. Bush deserves a great deal of credit for confronting a very emotional and challenging policy issue facing our nation — proposing comprehensive immigration reform.
I want to thank LULAC for working with this Administration on this issue. You are an important part of the coalition supporting a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. The President is committed to comprehensive reform. The President recognizes that strengthening border security and a credible, enforceable temporary worker program are mutually dependent. They are both necessary to protect our homeland, to honor our nation’s tradition of the melting pot, and to meet the legitimate needs of our nation’s economy. The President is continuing to work with members of Congress to reach a consensus on a bill that addresses our immigration challenges.
As you have heard, I arrived in America at the age of eight speaking no English. My parents made the courageous decision to leave behind everything that was familiar and seek a better life for their family in America. My father came first. It took him three long years to save enough money so we could join him. My parents endured many hardships so my sisters and I could have a better life.
That’s why helping traditionally underserved communities access opportunity is one of my highest priorities. In the next 10 years, 60 percent of the federal workforce will be eligible for retirement. This upcoming wave of retirements presents a tremendous opportunity for those who are looking at career options. There are more than 20,000 job opportunities listed on the federal employment Web site: www.USAJOBS.gov. We hope you will help us spread the word in your community about the opportunities in the federal government.
America is grateful for the many contributions that Hispanic Americans have made to our country throughout its history. President George W. Bush has led the way by appointing more Americans of Hispanic heritage to top positions in government than any other President in history. They include Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, and DOL Assistant Secretary Ronnye Vargas Stidvent. And my personal aides Melissa Naudin and Gary Koutsoubos are Hispanic. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the men and women in uniform and veterans of Hispanic descent. They follow a proud tradition of many Hispanic Americans who have gone before them and won so many medals of honor.
Finally, let me mention the upcoming Opportunity Conference hosted by the Department of Labor. It offers free seminars on networking, communications and accessing government grant and contracting opportunities for Hispanic, Asian, and African American communities. Last year, LULAC was a regional partner. You can find out more about the next conference, which will be held in Philadelphia on October 17, 2006 by going to www.opportunityconference.gov.
Thank you for inviting me to be part of your Unity Luncheon.
God bless America, and God bless you all.