Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Department of Labor Welcome Ceremony Address

March 6, 2001

Thank you all for that warm welcome.

It’s great to look across this room and see people who represent every cross-section of business, government and labor.

In fact, there’s only one group we didn’t invite, but probably should have: the meteorologists.

We tried to get Willard Scott, but he was busy, of course.

This is an exciting day, as all new beginnings are.

I hope you share my feeling that the coming years will be an important time for everyone who works at, and with, the Department of Labor.

That’s why it’s wonderful to see so many friends who have come from near and far—mostly far—to be with us today.

Many of you have encouraged me, counseled me and believed in me, and I am deeply grateful for your taking the time to be with me today.

In particular, I want to introduce my family, especially my parents, who have been so pivotal in my life. Without their support, confidence and faith, I would not be who I am today.

So many years ago, when I came as a young child to America aboard a freighter, our ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor.

Little could I imagine then that I would be here with you today as the Secretary of Labor.

Our early days here were difficult, but my parents were steadfast in their belief in America’s promise of opportunity.

Hope was our touchstone. Hope in a better future kept us going.

And for that reason, hope is really what I would like the Department of Labor to be about—helping people reach their fullest potential in the greatest country on earth—by giving them the training and skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

Indeed, this is a time of tremendous change—not just in Washington, but across the country, even across the globe.

I’m not talking about changing leadership in the White House, but about huge changes in our economy—in how we work, where we work, and how our professional lives fit in with our family lives.

In some ways these changes are obvious—the explosive growth of the Internet economy, for instance—and in some ways more subtle.

As I see it, our job at the Department of Labor is not just to react to changes, but to anticipate them and enable our workforce to adapt to them, perhaps even take advantage of them.

We need to recognize that the 21st century economy is not the same one we grew up with, and America’s 21st century workforce has to adjust to those changes.

To help people do that—to give them a constant hope in a changing world—we need to become a 21st century Department of Labor, and that is the goal I set before all of us today.

Some things, however, must not and will not change.

Under my leadership, our first responsibility will always be to protect workers by enforcing our nation’s labor laws:

* to ensure the safety of every workplace
* to guarantee an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work
* to stop discrimination
* to protect workers from coercion and intimidation
* and make sure no one plays games with any worker’s pension.

We need to enforce these laws using common sense, not just a reflexive, one-size-fits-all approach to every situation.

And if we really are going to protect workers, we must put more emphasis than ever before on prevention and compliance assistance—rather than just after-the-fact enforcement.

Each time I approve a major fine against a company—for safety violations that were discovered after an accident that cost the life of an employee—I can’t help but feel a twinge that if we had just worked harder on prevention, we wouldn’t be in the impossible position of trying to calculate the value of a lost human life.

So while I am committed to enforcement, I believe that the necessary predicate to enforcement must be better prevention.

At the same time, I think the Department of Labor has a broader mission that I believe it can fulfill: to become the Department of the Workforce, contributing to America’s economic development by investing in its most precious capital resource: its workers.

Thanks to the work of Congress and the professionals at ETA, we have a new roadmap—the Workforce Investment Act—to start us in the right direction.

But we need more fresh ideas, fresh approaches, and new partnerships to help us prepare the 21st century workforce.

What we refer to as the New Economy presents hopeful opportunities: thousands of good-paying, stimulating jobs—in relatively safe working conditions—with limitless potential for advancement.

But to achieve the hopes, we need to overcome the hurdles.

Many of these new jobs go begging, because employers can’t find the workers to fill them.

At the same time, thousands of workers desperately want to fill those jobs, but need new training to be able to do so.

And there’s another hurdle we face in the future, which I call “The Incredible Shrinking Workforce.”

Our population is aging. What used to be called the “Woodstock generation” is approaching retirement—while advances in medicine are allowing them to live longer, healthier lives.

Within a few decades, some demographic experts believe the American workforce simply will not be large enough to meet the demands of a continually growing economy—and will not provide a sufficient tax base to take care of the next generation of retirees.
In the face of these challenges, we at the Department of Labor need to provide a beacon of hope, finding solutions for our workers and for the economy as a whole.

That’s why I want to call all of us at the Department of Labor to help prepare America’s 21st century workforce.

Shortly, I will be creating within the Department a new Office of the 21st Century Workforce, to bring focus and drive to this mission.

Its first responsibility will be to hold a Summit on the 21st Century Workforce this spring, where we will call on leaders from business, labor unions, government and elsewhere to address the structural changes that are affecting our workforce and our economy.
We need to review every aspect of this Department work, to make sure we are helping and not hindering the development of a workforce that is ready for the future.

But I want to make clear that this focus on the 21st Century Workforce is about a lot more than just making sure Silicon Valley has enough engineers.

As I said earlier, our mission is to provide hope—by equipping every worker to have as fulfilling and financially rewarding a career as they aspire to have.

To use the language of our President, it’s about making sure that no worker gets left behind.

…like those who have been laid off from jobs because their company couldn’t keep up with technological changes or foreign competition. We need to re-train them so they don’t get left behind.

…or those who didn’t get a full education—as well as those who made a wrong turn at one point in their lives and are trying to make it back. We need to make sure they don’t get left behind.

And as the President has insisted, we must also reach out to those who have been denied the right to a productive, meaningful work life because of a disability.

We have a new Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Labor Department, with a new budget of twenty million dollars.

Its mission will be to carry out the President’s New Freedom Initiative, getting technology and other tools to disabled Americans, so they can enter the economic mainstream.

We’re not just giving all these people training or assistive technology or a new job. We’re giving them hope—the greatest gift of all.

Over the next several years, we will have many opportunities to work on issues that are difficult, sometimes even contentious.

This week is no exception, as Congress takes up legislation on this Department’s ergonomics standard.

Many times we’ll agree; other times, we’ll disagree.

But I want to call all of us to something that seems to have eluded us over the last several years—and that is to seek out the common ground.

I urge us all to put aside our position papers and party labels, and start focusing on the larger issues that are facing our workforce—the real issues that matter to families as they sit around the dinner table, pay their bills, and think about their retirement.

I believe that’s where the common ground is waiting to be discovered.

And if we can start by doing that, there is no end to what we will be able to accomplish for the good of America’s workforce. Thank you.
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