Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Workforce Innovations 2008

July 15, 2008

Thank you, Brent. It’s great to have you onboard.

Welcome, everyone. It is great to see so many people here from across the country! And a very special welcome to our guests from Canada and our other international visitors. This is my 6th Workforce Innovations Conference. It’s great to see the conference get bigger and better each year. I want to thank Bill Sanders [Director of Workforce Innovations, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor] and the ETA staff for their work in making this conference so successful.

Let me also recognize Tim Barfield, Executive Director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission; Anthony Bingham President and CEO, American Society for Training and Development; and the city of New Orleans for co-hosting this conference.

As the first Labor Secretary of the 21st century, I want to share some thoughts with you about the critical importance of the workforce investment system and the challenges we face in the future. America needs you — the entire workforce innovation community — because your dedication is critical to helping America’s workers remain competitive in the global economy.

It has been said that in this world, there is nothing certain except death and taxes. Add one more certainty to that list — change. Over the past several decades, America’s economy has changed and evolved in ways that challenge us to do more. It is critical that our workforce has access to the tools necessary to keep up with our economy’s fast pace of change.

The competitiveness of our workers hinges on the ability to continually update their skills, to be flexible, and to evolve. This is true not only of workers, but also of the institutions that serve them—government, labor, private industry, and education. The days of job matching and short-term retraining are over. As our knowledge-based economy continues to evolve, our workforce investment system must continue to innovate — and it must be responsive to the economic needs of the times. Because that is the only way workers benefit in the long run.

You should be proud of the progress that has been made over the past seven and a half years. Take a moment to look around the room. There are no artificial boundaries here. Employers sit next to unions. State and local officials sit next to federal officials. Trade association executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and business leaders from across America share their ideas, creating new networks and driving innovation. It is through these partnerships, fostered across regions, that we together have made the most progress in reshaping our workforce investment system. Today, more than ever, we have a system that is flexible and includes all the stakeholders and professionals needed to develop the resources and training programs our 21st century workforce will need to succeed.

All Americans are driven by a desire to succeed. But figuring out the mix of education, training, and skills needed to succeed can be a daunting task. As you spend the next three days immersed in learning, teaching and networking with your fellow professionals, remember that there is never a single “right way.” Each individual worker is different, so the workforce investment system must be prepared to customize its approaches. With your help, the worker of today and tomorrow will find the right combination of resources that he or she needs to achieve the American dream.

Let’s reflect a moment on some of the critical refinements we have made together to make the Workforce Investment System truly responsive for all job seekers, as well as for employers in need of skilled workers.

The realities of today’s global economy make it critical that the public workforce investment system is demand driven and focused on talent development at all levels. That is why it has been a priority of the Department of Labor to provide the resources that allow workers to take advantage of the new and increasing job opportunities available in the emerging sectors of our economy. Significant progress has been made in the last seven years. But now is not the time to rest — as the economy faces difficult head winds, America’s workers need us more than ever. It is up to you to keep the momentum going. The next few years will be critical to our workforce investment system. And I challenge everyone — government, private industry, non-profit sector, labor and all the other stakeholders — to build on the progress we have made together.

For example, this Administration has invested over $59 billion in workforce training since 2001. And the Department of Labor has invested more than $1 billion on national and regional innovation communities. Through the President’s High Growth Job Training Initiative, the Community-Based Job Training Grant Initiative, the WIRED initiative, and WIA itself, the Department has put critical resources into the hands of workers and workforce innovators. We depend upon all of you to help make this system work effectively.

We need a workforce system that trains people for real jobs in the real world. What sense does it make to provide training for occupations for which there is little demand? What sense does it make to have two offices side-by-side doing the same thing? And what sense does it make to waste precious resources that could be helping unemployed workers find new opportunities in new industries?

Now, more than ever, our workforce investment system, along with all of its partnerships and relationships, must be ready to face the challenges ahead.

As anyone who has filled up their gas tank or gone to the grocery store can tell you, our economy faces some significant challenges today. The rising price of oil and the continued issues facing the housing market have made a significant impact. Fortunately, we have seen these challenges before and we have beaten them before. This Administration is continuing to keep a close eye on the economy and the job market. About $56 billion in stimulus payments have already gone out the door and the total stimulus package will put about $150 billion back in the U.S. economy. That’s equal to about one percent of our country’s GDP. This stimulus is expected to create over half a million jobs by the end of the year.

Unemployment remains low at 5.5 percent, still below the average rate of the 1990s. Productivity growth, the most important factor in long-term economic growth, has averaged 2.5 percent per year in the U.S. for the last seven years. This is above the averages for each of the past three decades. GDP growth remains positive. And while job creation over the past six months has been disappointing, job losses are averaging about half the pace of even the mild recession of 2001.

So there is great need for the services provided by the workforce investment system — not only because of the current economic climate, but because of the transition to a knowledge-based economy. In the next decade, nearly two-thirds of the estimated 15.6 million net new jobs created in our country will be in occupations that require post-secondary education or significant on-the-job training. By definition, these jobs pay above average wages because employers are increasingly paying a premium for talented workers with skills that are in demand. From 2001 to 2007, the number of jobs in high-paying occupations grew at a rate almost 3 times that of lower-paying occupations.

As America moves into the second decade of this new century, our country will need millions of highly skilled workers to fill the jobs our evolving economy will create. The U.S. will need to fill job openings for nearly 3 million healthcare professionals, especially nurses. We will need over 950,000 engineers, including aerospace, biomedical, civil, computer software, and environmental engineers. We will also need workers in other high growth industries including nanotechnology, geospatial technology, and the life sciences, to name a few. In fact, health services — along with professional and business services — currently account for nearly one-fifth of total employment in the U.S. These sectors are projected to account for more than halfof U.S. employment growth by 2016.

These aren’t the kinds of jobs you can access with a high school education alone. Our higher education system is going to play an increasingly critical role in preparing the next generation of American workers. I am proud of the success the Department has had in integrating the nation’s community colleges into the workforce investment system. The flexibility, accessibility and adaptability of our 1200 community colleges will be key to our continued competitiveness in this global economy.

Ensuring the continued competitiveness of America’s workforce has been one of the key missions of the Department of Labor, and I want to thank all of you for your continued support and assistance as we have worked to fulfill that mission.

As we meet here in New Orleans, we all remember the devastation caused by the hurricanes only a few years ago. The scars of those storms can still be seen. I know that for many of you, this isn’t your first trip to New Orleans. Many of you volunteered to come here and to Mississippi, Texas and Alabama in the wake of those storms. You helped thousands of workers start putting their lives back together. You walked them through unemployment claims. You found them jobs. You were on the ground, responding directly, and making a difference.

With your help, the Department was able to provide over $290 million in emergency funds that gave more than 99,000 dislocated workers a paycheck while they helped rebuild their communities. By working with faith-based organizations, community activists, the federal contracting community, foreign consulates and local media, the Department reached across traditional boundaries to provide outreach to workers across the Gulf in the wake of the storms.

I urge all of you to take advantage of the community service opportunities that are available at the Conference.

The ILO and the U.N. stated that America’s workforce today remains the most competitive in the world. Let us all remain committed to ensuring that it stays that way. America’s most vital national resource is the talent of our workers. By working together across boundaries, and by using networks and professional relationships to foster innovation, we can continue to provide workers with the resources necessary to access the skills and job training of the future.

As this is my last Workforce Innovation Conference, I want to thank you personally for the tremendous work you are doing every day – your dedication, hard work and support over the past seven and a half years. It has been a joy and a privilege working with the best workforce development experts and professionals in the world. I am going to miss you all very much — you are important. The Workforce Development network nationwide is unique. You are contributing to increasing the competitiveness of our nation’s workforce and, by extension, our country by improving lives, offering hope and opportunity.

You are making a real difference for our workers and our country everyday.

Thank you and God bless you!

Have a great conference!
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