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November 4, 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
2008 Business and Professional Women's Leadership Summit
Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thank you, Senator Hutchison [Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas] for that kind introduction. And thank you for co-sponsoring this important summit with your colleagues.

It's great to be in the company of so many accomplished women! And a special welcome to the delegation from Kentucky!

This afternoon, I'd like to talk about education and workforce training, and why it is key to ensuring that our country's economy remains strong and competitive. And, then I'd like to share with you what the Department of Labor is doing to strengthen protections for workers who are balancing work and family life.

Let me begin with some thoughts on the role of education and training.

As you know, our economy is currently going through a rough patch due to challenges in the housing and credit markets. However, the long term prospects for our economy are still strong.

Our economy continues to create opportunities, but the majority of these opportunities are for workers with education and training beyond high school. 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 at least some post-secondary education or considerable on-the-job training. For example, some of the fastest-growing occupations will include network systems and data analysts, software engineers, financial advisors, and healthcare workers.

Now, not all of these occupations require a four-year college degree. Many fast-growing opportunities are for workers with two-year degrees from community colleges and workers who participate in long-term, on-the-job training. A two-year degree can qualify workers for solid, well-paying careers in high-growth occupations. In fact, in 2006, the median annual wage for jobs requiring an associate degree was just over $50,000!

That's why President George W. Bush launched the Community-Based Job Training Grants, which the Department of Labor administers. This initiative expands the capacity of community colleges to prepare workers for careers in growth sectors of the economy. So far, the Department has awarded $325 million in grants to fund 211 education and training partnerships with community colleges.

Expanding access to education and training that is truly relevant to workforce needs is critical. That's because there is a disconnect between the jobs being created and the workers available to fill them, sometimes called the skills gap.

For example, in its April 2008 report on small business economic trends, the National Federation of Independent Business reported that over one-third of small employers are having difficulty in finding well-qualified job candidates. And in its most recent report on the economy, the Federal Reserve noted shortages of skilled workers in service industries in the Atlanta and Chicago area. And, shortages of management, engineering, and agricultural workers in the Dallas area.

Manpower Inc. also noted in its 2008 Talent Shortage Survey that engineers, technicians, skilled trades, accounting and finance staff, mechanics, and IT staff are among their 10 most difficult-to-fill jobs for U.S. employers. And, as is often mentioned, attracting and retaining nurses continues to be a challenge nationwide.

In addition to ensuring access to jobs, education and training are also directly related to earnings. Here are just a few examples:

Today, high school dropouts average about $528 per week for full-time work and their unemployment rate is about 8.2 percent.

Workers with a high school diploma average $735 weekly and have a 5.1 percent unemployment rate.

And workers with some college or an associate degree average $885 per week and their unemployment rate is 3.8 percent.

But workers with a bachelor's degree or higher average $1,405 per week and have an unemployment rate of just 2.1 percent.

Women are well-positioned to benefit from these trends, because we appreciate the importance of education.

Today, American women complete high school at higher rates than men. Women are more likely to enter and graduate from college than men. In fact, the number of women holding a bachelor's degree or higher has more than doubled in the past 20 years.

And, a look down the road shows that women are positioning themselves for even greater gains over the next 20 years. Last year, women comprised more than half of all advanced degree holders under the age of 40. So it's no surprise that the unemployment rate for women is slightly lower than for men.

So as women leaders, all of you can be very effective in communicating this important message about the need for education. The message to young people should be: Stay in school!

Now let me turn to another issue that concerns many of you, which is balancing work and family life. For many workers, it is the Family and Medical Leave Act that helps balance the increased work-life demands that are being felt.

The Department of Labor is proposing targeted changes to the 15-year old regulations under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The proposal is balanced and will ensure that the law works better for everyone.

FMLA has generally worked well — particularly for the birth or adoption of a child. And, in many situations, where workers need time to recover from their own serious health condition or that of a family member.

But, after 15 years of real-world experience with the FMLA and a number of court decisions, it is clear that there have been some unintended consequences.

FMLA has not worked well in certain situations. For example:

  • In some cases, the FMLA has protected employees who fail to call in absences in a reasonable time. This leaves employers — as well as fellow employees — in the lurch.
  • Currently, FMLA forces a worker to take leave even if he or she could return to work on "light duty."
  • Under the proposed changes, a worker would not have to take leave for light duty.

This proposed rule will make some targeted regulatory changes that will:

  • Help improve communications between employers and employees;
  • Conform the existing rule to court decisions; and
  • Begin implementation of the new Wounded Warrior/Military Family Leave legislation.

No one will lose eligibility for FMLA under the proposed changes.

This rulemaking will reduce uncertainty in the workplace for everyone. We believe that everyone will benefit from greater clarity in the rules.

So once again, I'd like to thank Senator Hutchison for inviting so many American women for this important policy summit. And, for giving us an opportunity to learn how women can make even greater contributions as leaders, workers, and family members in the years ahead.

Now, I'd be pleased to take some questions from the audience.

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