Hilda Solis took office in February 2009, as challenging a moment that could be imagined for any Labor secretary. The economy was in free fall. The job market was in even worse shape, as unemployment skyrocketed and record numbers of Americans found themselves out of work for long periods of time. Then just over a year into her term, 29 miners were killed in an explosion in West Virginia, casting a harsh light on the Labor Department’s mine safety agency.
Even as she managed those crises, Solis was tasked with a daunting long-term mission: To reverse the plight of American workers, who, even before the recession, were dealing with flattening wages and eroding job security. The antidote to many of those trends is education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math—skills that will be increasingly required for the best and most plentiful jobs of the future.
Solis is also on the front lines of the administration’s efforts to stoke the green energy economy, which received an unprecedented level of investment money from President Obama’s economic stimulus package. Still, the nation seems far away from a true pivot to renewable energy, a goal that is likely to remain elusive without a carbon tax to transform the economics of energy. So, in short, Solis has a full plate.
Before joining the Obama administration, Solis was a four-term member of the House of Representatives, where she focused on expanding health care, protecting the environment, and uplifting working people. One of her key legislatives achievements was enactment of a bill that provided funding for “green collar” training for veterans, displaced workers, at-risk youth and people from low-income families.
A former federal employee who worked in the Carter White House Office of Hispanic Affairs and in the Office of Management and Budget Civil Rights Division, Solis was elected to the board of trustees of California’s Rio Hondo Community College in 1985. From 1992 until 1994, she served in the California State Assembly, and in 1994 she became the first Latina elected to the California Senate. A discussion with Solis follows here:
HE&IT: Why did you want to be labor secretary? What is the most fulfilling part of the job? The most challenging?
Solis: I have fought for working families, women, young people, veterans, people with disabilities and communities of color my entire career as a public servant. My goals as secretary of labor are to fight for the rights and safety of workers, while providing them with job skills necessary to compete in the 21st century.
There are many fulfilling aspects of my work. For example, it heartens me when I meet those young people attending our Job Corps programs who are getting a second chance at life, and receiving an education and job skills. They are preparing themselves for careers, not just jobs, that will help them be successful in the future. Second, I see the good work of our staff at our One-Stop Career Centers across the country. These dedicated individuals are providing others the help they need to find employment and prepare for the jobs of the future. Finally, I’m proud that we have stepped up our enforcement efforts in the workplace to provide workers with a safe work environment as well as their right to fair pay.
Unfortunately, challenges remain. Partisan politics still hurt American families during these difficult economic times, and we continue to find employers that try to circumvent the system and exploit workers. Despite these roadblocks, we continue to forge ahead to stay true to the mission of the Department of Labor.
HE&IT: How would you describe the difference between the department now and how it operated under Secretary Chao?
Solis: As a member of Congress, I spent years crafting legislation to protect American workers and their families. As the Labor secretary, my role now is to be a regulator. It is one that I take very seriously. From securing workers’ wages and protecting their retirement, to ensuring a safe and secure workplace, the Department of Labor has regulations in place to protect workers and level the playing field for businesses that play by the rules. We are putting workers and their safety first. This is not to say that we do not want businesses to succeed. On the contrary, we want to highlight and partner with companies that are doing the right things for their employees and provide them with assistance they need to be successful.
And while we work to ensure that employees have workplace protections, we also have made investments in our workforce and training programs. We have provided $720 million in grants for training in high demand careers such as clean and renewable energy, healthcare, and information technology. At the same time, we are partnering with labor organizations, the private sector, local and state governments, and nonprofits to ensure that everyone who wants a job has both the opportunity to have the job and the skills needed to perform it in this new economy.
HE&IT: Unemployment among African Americans and Hispanics is running well into double digits. When do you foresee that changing? Why are those rates so much higher than they are for whites?
Solis: Unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics have been historically higher than those for whites. This discrepancy is partially explained by lower educational attainment on average. In 2007 (before the recession), the average unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 7.1 percent. For those with a high school diploma, the jobless rate was 4.4 percent, while for persons with some college, the rate was 3.6 percent. Persons with a bachelor’s degree or higher faced just a 2.0 percent unemployment rate.
But even blacks and Hispanics with the same educational attainment have higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. Among those with a bachelor’s education, the unemployment rate in 2007 for blacks was 3.0 percent — which is very low but nonetheless higher than the 1.9 percent rate for college-educated whites. The jobless rate for college-educated Hispanics was 2.3 percent. The reasons for these disparities are not fully explained by level of educational attainment; some portion can certainly be attributable to a history of discrimination.
Recessions tend to exacerbate these differences. Workers with lower levels of educational attainment are particularly vulnerable to economic swings. Job losses in the last two years have been concentrated in fields that have lower educational requirements. Additionally, blacks and Hispanics reside in communities and work in industries, like construction and service-related occupations, that have been the hardest hit by this recession.
We expect that many of these jobs will return as the economy continues to grow over the next several years, though we may never return to the pre-recession employment levels. That is why this administration and the Department of Labor, in particular, are committed to providing training and educational opportunities for all Americans struggling to find work in this economy. We want to prepare workers for the emerging occupations that will dominate our economy in the future.
Through programs like Pathways Out of Poverty and America’s Graduate Initiative, this administration is taking extraordinary steps to help disadvantaged communities gain greater access to quality education, job training, and good jobs that have eluded many of them for so long.
HE&IT: What is the biggest hurdle to getting more blacks and Hispanics into science, technology and engineering jobs?
Solis: Both the science-technology-engineering-math academic community and workforce look unlike America in their diversity. Given the importance of STEM fields to our nation’s global competitiveness, it is imperative that the United States produces a large and diverse pool of scientists and engineers. Having more representation of blacks and Hispanics in these fields will fuel our future needs, attract our youth and support them as they climb STEM career ladders.
The department is working to support policies that will produce a world class, highly-skilled STEM workforce. We know that education is critical to being able to access good jobs with good wages and benefits. Toward that end, many of our job training programs that serve at-risk, disadvantaged youth, such as Job Corps and YouthBuild, help them earn a GED or high school diploma, and provide training in the fields of clean and renewable energy, what we call 'green jobs.'
Further, under the Recovery Act, this department has invested approximately $500 million in clean energy training grants and an additional $220 million in high growth and health care training grants. The beauty of these programs is that we encourage grant recipients to partner with educational institutions, which many of them already were doing. We also are working closely with our sister agency, the U.S. Department of Education, to provide workers with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
When I talk to students about careers in STEM fields, I point toward my sisters, who are both engineers. I also tell them my own story. My high school counselor told me that I should be a secretary . . . an office assistant. It turns out he was half right. I would become a secretary….the secretary of Labor. I was able to do this with the support of my family, another counselor who believed in me, others who took an interest in my future, and a lot of hard work and perseverance. These experiences are what drive me to provide opportunities for our country’s youth.
HE&IT:What must the education system change to prepare more workers for those jobs?
Solis: The education system – especially two-year community and technical colleges – needs to work closely with employers to guarantee that training and education lead to jobs. The Labor Department works to make this happen through many of our grant programs. The Community-Based Job Training Grant Program is one example. Successful applicants for these grants, many of which are community colleges, are required to name the businesses that they will partner with as they create or expand training programs.
HE&IT: What shortcomings do you see in the job retraining programs that are out there? How do you overcome them?
Solis: We have heard anecdotally that some workers are being wait-listed for certain Labor Department-funded programs. Expanding the capacity of training programs so they can serve more workers is how we address this deficiency. The department will be opening up grant competitions in the coming months that will allow colleges and other training providers to serve more workers. There are so many high-quality training programs out there, and we need to make sure that all workers who want to enroll in training are able to do so.
HE&IT: President Obama talks a lot about renewable energy being the next big driver of economic growth. Can that happen without some kind of cap-and-trade or carbon tax legislation to change the economics of energy?
Solis: For decades it has been clear that the way Americans produce and consume energy is not sustainable. Our addiction to foreign oil and fossil fuels puts our economy, our national security and our environment at risk. The president already has made great strides toward changing our energy future. The Recovery Act constituted an unprecedented and historic investment in the clean energy economy – to strengthen our clean energy industries, reduce our energy use, and preserve and create good, green jobs that cannot be outsourced. Clean energy jobs will be a key driver behind America's economic recovery and sustained economic stability.
That is why I authored the Green Jobs Act as a member of Congress and it is also why the Department of Labor is investing $500 million in projects that prepare workers for careers in energy efficiency and renewable energy. I’ve seen these projects and others first-hand in my travels and meetings with workers across the country.
They are making a difference – a difference for workers, their families, and our environment. The president has been working with and urging Congress to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation to protect our nation from the serious economic and strategic risks associated with our reliance on foreign oil, to create jobs, and to cut down on the carbon pollution that contributes to the destabilizing effects of climate change. He intends to keep pushing for broad reform, including climate legislation, because if we’ve learned anything from the tragedy in the Gulf, it’s that our current energy policy is unsustainable.
HE&IT: What other drivers do you see for the nation's economic future?
Solis: The provisions of the Recovery Act – the tax cuts, the state fiscal relief, the support for displaced workers, and the infrastructure investments – all contributed to a broad-based recovery and set the stage for future economic growth with new, high-paying jobs. Since the start of the recovery, we have seen steady growth in consumer spending, increases in business investments, and consistent growth in exports, all of which have contributed to a balanced growth in GDP.
With regard to specific occupations where we may see growth reflected, according to the Council of Economic Advisers, over the next two decades jobs that require at least an associate degree will grow twice as fast as jobs with only a high school requirement. Among the industries expected to have the highest rates of growth are healthcare, information technology, advanced manufacturing, and green jobs.
Many of these jobs in industries with very skilled workforces — with about three-quarters of workers age 25 to 54 in health care and professional and business services having completed at least some college — and the demand for high-skilled workers are likely to keep growing. Healthcare is expected to account for the largest growth over the next decade, especially in careers in electronic medical records, health IT, nurses, and lab technicians.
The construction industry is expected to recover and the decade’s long decline in manufacturing is expected to moderate with aerospace and pharmaceuticals taking the lead in creating many jobs. Clean energy industries also will lead to a high growth in jobs, particularly in clean energy production and environmental protection. As our economy continues to recover, we already are seeing a return to growth in many of these industries and continued strong growth in healthcare.