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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
Higher Education Summit for Global Development
Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thank you, Henrietta [Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development]. It's great to be here. And let me add my welcome to all of today's conferees. I know that some of you have traveled a long way to be here.

As panelists have discussed today, our countries share many common challenges in the increasingly worldwide economy in which we live. And one of the most important is how to equip our young people and our workers for the jobs of tomorrow.

So let me share some thoughts on the importance of education to remaining competitive in today's global economy.

Like any other nation, America faces many challenges and opportunities. And one of the challenges is the skills gap. That's the mismatch between the skills of some in our workforce and the skills needed for jobs in growing sectors of our nation's economy.

In the next decade, nearly 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 considerable on-the-job training. Our country, for example, will need to fill job openings for nearly 3 million healthcare professionals. 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.

By definition, these jobs pay above average wages because employers are paying a premium for workers with skills that are in demand. But workers need postsecondary education to access these opportunities.

At the Department of Labor, our approach to workforce education and training recognizes that not all regions of our country, and not all workers, are the same. 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 unique workforce and development needs.

Empowering the individual starts early in our country with the way in which young people are educated. Some countries stress rote memorization in their educational systems and produce students who excel at passing tests. And this is a traditional way to acquire knowledge. But the United States is particularly attuned to identifying the different ways in which individuals learn and apply this to education to create customized approaches. Rather than a one-size learning method, the U.S. emphasizes teaching in different ways to maximize the way students learn. After all, some students learn by what they read and see. Others absorb information best through the spoken word. And still others learn by a combination of approaches.

The competitive advantage of our country is not just in offering a strong mix of high quality educational institutions and education providers. Our country's competitive advantage lies in an approach to education that stresses creativity, problem solving and critical thinking.

Much is made of the fact that students in the United States do not do as well as some other countries on standardized tests, especially in subjects such as mathematics. And make no mistake about it, a mastery of the fundamentals is extremely important. But these comparisons of test scores often overlook the unique strengths of American education, which are very effective at tapping the talent of each individual student. This is turn, leads to a society that is very good at transforming abstract ideas into creative, practical goods and services of all kinds. The global penetration of America's popular culture in the arts and the media is testimony to this fact. That's why the protection of intellectual property is so important to our country.

But as I mentioned earlier, access to education is also key to remaining competitive in today's worldwide economy. And in the United States, there is a strong appreciation for the benefit of lifelong learning that allows workers to learn new things throughout their working lives.

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. All of them emphasize partnerships between the public and private sector to spur development, which is the topic of this conference. Let me touch on three of them today.

The President's High Growth Job Training Initiative was created to identify the sectors of our nation's 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 and identify the skills necessary for fast growing jobs.

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.

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. 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.

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 all job seekers — close the skills gap in our country.

The third part of our strategy was to bring the leaders of regional economies together to develop economic strategies based on our most precious resource, which is human talent. We have also 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. It 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. 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. Some of the American institutions represented here today are partners in this initiative. That's why WIRED has proven to be one of the most innovative programs for revitalizing local economies.

These three initiatives underscore the strong belief that a productive workforce is the backbone of our nation's economy. Another strength of our economy is the flexibility of our country's labor market. It always startles audiences overseas when they learn just how fluid and dynamic the U.S. labor force is. The U.S. labor force is over 153 million. And the average American worker in his mid-forties will have held more than 10 jobs — largely in pursuit of better opportunities. So change is the norm in our society.

This level of flexibility allows workers to find better jobs and earn higher salaries as they gain experience and advance in their fields. To keep pace with this mobility, this Administration has also proposed special accounts, up to $6,000 in vouchers, so workers can purchase the education and training that they think is best for them. We found that all too often, 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 still in the initial phase, pilot projects show that it can be an effective way of helping workers get relevant job training.

Let me close by nothing that each country is unique, and has different levels of resources to devote to education and skills training. But the strategy of empowering the individual is something that we can all share and benefit from. And in today's increasingly global economy, those countries that foster not only knowledge, but creativity and critical thinking, will have an advantage.

So thank you for all you are doing to share best practices and to build partnerships that will strengthen education and worker training in countries throughout the world. I'm sure you will agree that access to quality, relevant education and training is critical to ensuring that the benefits of prosperity are shared by all.


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