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October 6, 2008    DOL Home > Newsroom > Speeches & Remarks   

Speeches by Secretary Elaine L. Chao

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Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
Summit on Decentralization of Labor Market Policy
Friday, April 18, 2008

Thank you, Aart [de Geus, Deputy Secretary-General, OECD], for chairing this panel. It is a pleasure to attend this OECD conference.

Today I'd like to share some thoughts about how the United States is helping our workforce remain competitive by empowering workers and leaders at the regional level. Our approach to workforce training recognizes that not all regions of our country, and not all workers, are the same. Each region has its own advantages and challenges. And there is no one-size-fits all solution to worker training that is right for every worker. So we believe the best approach is to empower individual workers. And then we encourage leaders at the local level to work together to design customized approaches that meet their region's workforce and development needs.

As part of this approach, this Administration has launched a series of initiatives, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, to expand access to relevant worker training and post-secondary education.

The President's High Growth Job Training Initiative is one. It was created to identify the sectors of the economy that are growing and the skills needed to access these opportunities. As part of this approach, the Labor Department convened a series of high-level meetings with industry leaders, educators, and others around the country to survey workforce needs, identify the skills necessary for these jobs, and develop solutions.

The next step was to bring together educators and educational institutions at the local level to design programs to train workers for jobs in growing sectors of their local economies. This program is called the President's Community Based Job Training Initiative. And, as its name implies, the goal is to expand the capacity of community-based colleges and other local education institutions to offer relevant occupational skills training and education.

Let me talk a little bit more about community colleges, because they are unique to the United States. Community colleges in the U.S. are two-year institutions that specialize in educating workers in technical skills that do not require a four-year college degree. They operate independently from 4-year colleges and universities. Students who attend community colleges receive certificates and degrees that allow them to become nurses, computer technicians, phlebotomists, and all sorts of other skilled occupations.

But they are not just for young people. They are a significant resource to help dislocated workers, as well. Given the fast past of change in today's worldwide economy, it is so important for workers to have access to education and training throughout their working lives. And community colleges provide opportunities for students to acquire new, marketable skills at any point in their career path.

The 1,655 community colleges in the United States are located in every state and in most major communities. Classes are held during the day and, also, in the evening and on weekends so workers who already have a job can attend them. And, the tuition is kept very low relative to four-year colleges, so working men and women can afford to attend.

Community colleges have proven invaluable in helping dislocated workers and in closing the skills gap in our country. That's the mismatch between the skills of some in our workforce and the skills needed for jobs in growing sectors of the economy. In the next decade, close to two-thirds of the estimated 15.6 million net new jobs created in the U.S. will be in occupations that require some post-secondary education or training. And many of the fastest growing opportunities are in technical occupations that require a 2-year degree at a community college or intensive on-the-job training.

Again, let me emphasize that a key part of our strategy is to link local education providers with employers in their communities that have jobs to fill. We have found that linking education providers with employers helps ensure that workers graduate with marketable skills that are in demand in their communities.

Finally, it is clear that for economic development to be successful, it must be centered at the regional level. Regions are increasingly where the action is — where local leaders come together to create a competitive advantage for their community in the global marketplace. And so, the third part of our strategy was to create a program that brings the leaders of regional economies together to develop economic strategies based on our most precious resource, which is human talent. We have found that one of the key factors attracting new employers to a region is the availability of skilled workers.

And, this new initiative, the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development or WIRED gives local communities an opportunity to meet this challenge. WIRED provides the seed capital to bring together local employers, government officials, educators, investors, and the leaders of non-profits, labor unions, and others to design a regional economic development strategy. The main criteria are that the strategy must be based on improving the skills of the local workforce to meet a specific economic need. Today, 39 regions across the U.S. are participating in this initiative, with great results. And the seed capital provided by the Department is inspiring other groups to contribute, as well. WIRED has proven to be one of the most innovative programs for ramping up worker training and revitalizing local economies.

The WIRED initiative was modeled somewhat along the lines of Silicon Valley, which created a vibrant hi-tech corridor by attracting hi-tech talent to the San Francisco Bay area of California. This experience proved that if a region can provide the skilled, talented workforce, employers will want to locate there and new jobs will be created.

These three initiatives are helping regions across the U.S. to build up their economies. And, there are many examples of regions that have used these tools to rejuvenate their economies after many years of struggle.

A great example is the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. This region was traditionally home to three of America's great industries — textiles, furniture, and tobacco. Over the last decade, however, each of these industries has gone through tremendous changes leading to a dramatic decrease in employment.

The Labor Department's unemployment insurance and trade adjustment programs provided for those workers who had lost their jobs. But the best assistance we can provide a worker is a job. So the Department made investments that would help the region rebuild, grow and create new jobs.

First, the Department helped fund a program at a local community college called Textiles-To-Technology. This program helps workers laid-off from textile manufacturing to develop the skill sets needed to work in North Carolina's growing biotechnology industry. And, it has been so successful that it now serves as the National Center for a Biotech Workforce.

Then the Department helped develop additional community college programs in the energy and health care fields, which were also identified as high-growth industries.

And, finally, the region competed for and won a WIRED grant to fully integrate workforce development, economic development, and education. As a result, new employers are increasingly attracted to this region. Dell Computers recently announced plans to build a new assembly facility in the region. And FedEx is building its east coast distribution center there, as well.

This is a great example of the progress that can be accomplished when employers, educators, and business and government leaders work together at the regional level.

Let me note that WIRED grants are awarded through a competitive process. We announce the competition nationally, and then regions get together, work on their proposals, and submit them to the Department for evaluation.

All of these examples underscore the strong belief of this Administration that a productive workforce is the backbone of our nation's economy. And, if we want to remain competitive, we must do everything we can to ensure that they have access to the skills training and education they need to thrive in today's highly competitive, knowledge-based economy.

Let me mention one other important aspect to our approach before I close, which is the importance of empowering individual workers. This Administration has proposed special accounts giving dislocated workers up to $6,000 in vouchers to purchase the education and training that they think is best for them. We found that all too often, dislocated workers were being forced to choose from a limited menu of government-subsidized job training options that are not always relevant to the needs of the local community. Although this proposal is new and still in the initial phase, pilot projects show that it can be an effective way of helping workers get relevant job training.

So let me close by thanking you for the opportunity to discuss the United States' approach to strengthening economic development by empowering workers and leaders at the regional level. I look forward to hearing the comments and experience of my colleagues and counterparts on this panel.

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