Labor Secretary Hilda Solis sat down with National Journal Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein on July 12 to discuss the workforce’s evolving demography at a National Journal Live event on “The Workforce Mosaic.” Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
NJ Who does job training well? When you look around the country, what do you like?
SOLIS We recently held an exhibit, an event on the [National] Mall here in Washington; we had several different trade unions in partnership with business working together to display what apprenticeship programs do. Some of them are very top-rated. Many of them are not funded at all by the federal government, but they provide the best training and wages. You bring individuals in—many young people, sometimes veterans. They have a [construction-industry] program called “Helmets to Hardhats,” where before veterans leave their military assignment, they can go through training, then reapply and be assigned to their local area once they leave the military to go into a particular trade.
NJ We’ll probably be a majority-minority country in the under-18 population soon. What are the biggest challenges that creates?
SOLIS Certainly the Latino population is the population we’re talking about; they are the fastest-growing. We have to be really concerned about education and about training and incentivizing them. I think it’s very important for people to have different skill sets and to have the ability to speak these different languages, because we’re talking about global competition as well and opening up markets. Being able to speak the language and understanding culture, it’s very important. Hispanics, or Latinos as I call them in California, embrace this country. They want to be a part of it. They want to be contributors.
NJ When you talk about language, are you talking about the educational system? Are you talking about the way kids are taught?
SOLIS I’m talking about flexibility everywhere. Not just there, but when you do business. Look at the amount of money the consumer market—there’s, what, billions of dollars worth of marketing just [targeting] that particular community. I was laughing the other day because I saw Tom Hanks on a major Spanish network in the morning. He didn’t speak one word of Spanish, and yet he was a hit. And he knew why he was on there. Who are the folks watching those movies? They are young Latino families.
NJ Recent Labor Department studies show that in the workforce, 36 percent of whites have college degrees, compared with only 26 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics. What are the implications if those gaps are not reduced?
SOLIS Obviously, we’re not going to be at a competitive advantage here unless we provide the appropriate skills, tools, and training—and allow for individuals also at our institutions of higher learning from other countries to be able to stay here. The president’s talked about that through immigration reform, allowing individuals who go through our institutions of higher learning to stay here, to get a green card and become citizens.
We talk about it when we discuss the issue of the Dream Act. There are so many youngsters who have come here [illegally] through no fault of their own—excellent students—that we know would have great earning power [and] would contribute. [And] this is not the time to talk about cutting back on education and training.
NJ The president went to El Paso, Texas, and gave a very impassioned speech about comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for people who have been here illegally. Why now, when you have this many people unemployed in the country?
SOLIS Why should we continue to allow an underground economy to take funding away from our schools, from our health care services, from our local government? When you bring these people out of the shadows and you make them pay taxes, the chances are they won’t be abused, they won’t be paid under the table. The business as well as the employee will have to pay into the tax system. There are billions of dollars that could be collected right away.
NJ Should we be preparing to have more older people stay in the workforce longer?
SOLIS I think we’ve already made that adjustment. I remember when my father retired at 65, he continued to work. Part of it was out of necessity. But most people, because of this recession, have unfortunately had to stay in the workforce even longer. And for women, it’s been disastrous. Especially for older women, because many of them don’t have a secure retirement plan. We have to learn—our whole society has to learn—how to save money.
NJ In the long run, is it a good thing or a troubling thing that people will be staying in the workforce longer?
SOLIS I would say unless we create more jobs, it’s going to be troubling, because we have an enormous number of young people—teenagers and those just graduating out of college—that are not finding jobs. What hope and aspirations are we giving to those young people? That’s why one of the things I’m doing at the Department of Labor is asking for corporations to step up to the plate and open up some summer jobs.
This article appears in the July 16, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.