Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Workforce Innovations 2005 Opening Plenary

July 11, 2005

Thank you! I want to thank Emily DeRocco, our Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training, for the terrific job she is doing. Isn’t she great?! And let me commend Bill Sanders and the ETA home team for bringing another great Workforce Innovations Conference to life.

And I want to thank all of you who have traveled across the nation to come together in Philadelphia! This is my 3rd Workforce Innovations Conference and I look forward to it each year. I hope you do, too.

President George W. Bush sends his best wishes to all of you. He remains focused on the country’s economy and committed to ensuring that each and every worker has the opportunity to get a good job and realize his or her dreams.

This afternoon I want to share with you some of the critical challenges that our country faces and why you play such a key role in securing the future of our workforce. Now, more than ever, America’s workforce needs you—the professionals, employers and educators who make up the public workforce investment system. You, and the services you provide, are critical to the future competitiveness of our country in a worldwide economy.

For the past several years, I have participated in several Summits of the G-8 Labor Ministers—the G-8 is comprised of the world’s most advanced, industrialized nations. Each of these meetings underscore that the biggest challenge facing America today is ensuring that our workforce has the skills necessary to compete in a worldwide economy. Every major industrialized nation is facing the same challenges: an increasingly interconnected worldwide economy that is putting pressure on traditional workforces. The state of America’s workforce today is strong. But the world of work is changing rapidly. And our country’s workforce must be prepared to evolve and successfully respond.

The President is doing everything he can to encourage a climate for growth and job creation. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted last Friday, more than 3.7 million new jobs have been created since May 2003. The unemployment rate fell to 5%, which is the lowest since September 11, 2001 and lower than the average unemployment rate of 5.7% in the decade of the 1990s. And the President remains committed to reducing the excessive taxation, over regulation and abusive regulation that is a drag on job creation. He is also committed to energy independence and opening more free and fair markets for U.S. goods and services.

The President recognizes, as we all do, that our economy is undergoing a shift away from rote jobs to higher end jobs that pay more but also require higher skills. It is critical, therefore, to help workers access the training they need to prepare for these value-added jobs. That’s why the President has made job training for the 21st century a presidential initiative. And he is depending upon each and every one of you to leverage the workforce investment system so that America’s workers are prepared for the challenges of the 21st century. In fact, job training is such a high priority in this Administration that a 4th goal—a competitive workforce—was added to the Department’s mission.

Just what does it take to be competitive in today’s world? A worldwide competitor must be more flexible, more adaptable, and much faster to respond to customer needs. A worldwide competitor thrives on new thinking, new design, and on innovative approaches to all parts of the process of producing a product or service. And a worldwide competitor is willing to shelve outdated processes and products in favor of improved ones—and is willing to do so repeatedly. America has a natural advantage in this respect. As one columnist recently put it, one of America’s greatest strengths is a willingness to adapt to change, even when it is unpleasant. Our country has evolved and adapted throughout our history. And through each successive wave of change, the positive correlation between change and increased productivity has been critical to raising the income and standard of living of America’s workers.

Today, we are living in a knowledge-based economy that requires a highly skilled, educated, flexible workforce. It requires workers who continually upgrade their skills over the course of their careers, so they can adapt and evolve with changing industries. The era of staying with one company for a lifetime is over. The average American today has had nine jobs by the time he or she is 34 years old. So our workforce is accustomed to change. The Department’s mission is to ensure that workers can access the training they need to keep pace with the rapid speed of innovation today.

That’s where you come in. You can make the difference between whether a worker will succeed or be left behind in the 21st century economy. And echoing the President, the goal of the publicly-funded workforce development system is to ensure that no worker is left behind. Anything less is unacceptable. So it is critical that you connect with employers in growth industries and learn which jobs and which skills are in demand. It is critical to develop partnerships between employers and education providers—including community and technical colleges—to develop relevant skills training curricula. And it is essential to help workers, especially displaced workers, access these opportunities for advancement.

This is the strategy behind the President’s High Growth Job Training Initiative. Emily DeRocco and I have traveled all around the country for the past several years, meeting with the leaders of growth and emerging sectors of the economy. We wanted to learn about their challenges in meeting current and future workforce needs. And we wanted to identify what role our system can play—along with industry and educators—to address those needs. The biotechnology, geospatial technology, health care, financial services, and the skilled trades are just a few of the areas that have been identified as high growth, emerging areas. Leaders in these industries are telling us the same thing: they can’t find enough workers with the right skills for these high-skilled, good-paying jobs. This week, you will also hear from leaders in manufacturing and energy about their workforce challenges. Working together, we can all help close the skills gap and empower workers to access these great emerging opportunities.

Let me also mention another issue. At the same time our country faces the challenges of a worldwide economy, our workforce is aging. The looming retirement of so many “baby boomers” is a seismic event that will affect our workforce in profound ways. In many professions, the skilled workforce is also an aging workforce. The average age of registered nurses, for example, is about 44. At the same time, the aging of America’s population is creating tremendous demand for skilled health care professionals. It’s one of many growth sectors that provide opportunities for not only solid careers, but rewarding careers.

As each retiring worker steps out of America’s workforce, another able worker must be prepared to step in. Our education systems—elementary, secondary and higher education, community colleges especially—and our public workforce investment system must be capable of meeting this demand.

As part of the High Growth Job Training Initiative, 115 grants have been announced—totaling over $204 million—to help you and others reach out to America’s workers.  We are very excited about these projects and the new job training models they are creating for the system.

The President’s $250 million Community-based Job Training Grant Initiative is another indication of how strongly he believes in the power of job training to transform lives. Throughout his term, he has traveled all over the country to meet with community colleges. He has spent time on campus with students, employers and workforce system officials. This initiative will help build the capacity of community colleges, and the department will announce the first grants this fall.

This Administration also recognizes that America cannot respond to the sheer size of the coming worker shortages and retirements without tapping new and non-traditional sources of workers. Older workers and workers with disabilities must be welcomed into the workforce. Our recruiting and training systems must be assessed and adjusted to accommodate every potential worker.

Together, we have invested five years in reinventing our public workforce investment system to better serve America’s workers. Because of your deep experience and deeper caring, great progress has been made. But there is much more work to be done.
The President recognizes the need to reform the workforce investment system. He has proposed a comprehensive strategy to increase flexibility, strengthen accountability and reduce overhead and administrative costs so workers are best served. His proposals will create a more effective governance structure and strengthen the One-Stop Career Center system. They include an optional provision giving states unprecedented flexibility to merge up to nine federal job training programs into a single funding stream. We are continuing to work with Congress on this proposal.

In the meantime, the workforce investment system cannot afford to wait for others to realize the need for change. You must be the agent of change. You are the leaders—you’ve got to lead the way—for the sake of America’s workers.

I am confident that you are up to the challenge. You have already accomplished so much. This conference is a celebration of your many success stories. There are so many workers all across America who have hope because of the interventions that you set in motion. So keep up the good work! Thank you for everything you are doing to reach out and help workers, especially the displaced workers who need your assistance more than ever. Working together, we can ensure that every worker who wants a job has the opportunity to realize his or her dreams in the 21st century.
P. O. Box 1118
Washington, D. C. 20013
Follow Us