Q: What are some of the major issues that you’ll have to address in your new role?
A: It starts with jobs, jobs, jobs. The economy is slowly but steadily growing — 41 consecutive months of job growth, there have been 7.3 million jobs created in the last 41 months. But there’s more work we can do and must do to pick up the pace. That’s why the president has been traveling the country, talking about the “better bargain for the middle class.”
Q: Since you can’t pass laws, what can you do to address these issues?
A: We can do quite a bit. We invest in skills. The Department of Labor is really the quarterback in a workforce-development system that enables businesses to get access to skilled employees and allows workers to get access to middle-class jobs.
I’ve traveled the country in my short time here on the job, talking to CEOs. The thing I hear most frequently from CEOs is: “I’m prepared to expand my workforce. I want to hire. One of my biggest challenges is I’m not seeing enough people with the right skills.”
That’s where the Department of Labor can make a difference.
Q: Specifically, what Labor Department programs can help with that?
A: We administer a number of training programs that are targeted toward veterans and all people who are unemployed, training programs that enable people to [improve their skills] and get access to jobs of the future. That is an enormously helpful way that we can meet the demand that employers have for new workers and provide upward-mobility opportunities for people.
Q: In your Labor Day speech, you talked about civil rights and labor rights being intertwined. What does that mean?
A: We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. That was a march for civil rights and labor rights. People wanted the end of school segregation, marchers wanted access to public accommodations, and marchers also wanted economic justice — including the need for a federal minimum wage that enabled people to earn a decent living. So these challenges are inextricably intertwined, and the Department of Labor is really the “department of opportunity.” Through the laws we enforce, we expand opportunity — the opportunity to earn a decent living, the opportunity to climb up the ladder of success and the opportunity to work in a safe environment and that you get paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work.
Q: You’ve been pushing for a higher minimum wage, but some economists say there are winners and losers to that approach.
A: The living-wage strikes that we’ve seen recently and the March on Washington really stand for the proposition that nobody who works a 40-hour week should have to live in poverty. Time and time again, after the minimum wage has been raised, those sky-is-falling predictions have been disproved.