Elizabeth Dole, U.S. Secretary of Labor
October 31, 1990
Reflections on the State of the American Workforce
Thank you very much, ladies and gentleman, for that warm welcome, and thank you, Dr. Wefald, for those very kind words of introduction.
As you mentioned, I did announce just last week that I will soon be leaving the Department of Labor to become president of the American Red Cross. At the time the announcement was made I was asked what my husband's reaction was? I said, "Bob has been very supportive of my decision, but he did have one reservation. He said that the budget negotiations have been so rough that he really believes he does not have any blood left to give." He also wanted to know if this meant that he is still going to be eating Lean Cuisine for dinner. I said, yes, you bet, that is exactly what it means.
I just came from California, and I was asked there if the Doles ever had a difference of views on issues since the both of us are in public policy positions? It reminded me of a time not too long ago, about five or six years ago, when the Congress was considering whether or not to establish a Consumer Protection Agency in the federal government. I happened to think that it would be a pretty good idea because there are 26 consumer offices located all across the federal government. Bob said, "No, no, Elizabeth, that is the worst thing that could happen. All we need is another federal bureaucracy."
Somehow or another "Good Morning America" found out that the Doles had a little difference of views on this issue, and David Hartman, who was then the host, called up and asked if we would be willing to debate this issue on their program. Possibly it would throw a little light on the issue before the Senate took its vote in ten days. And so we talked it over, and we agreed that we would do this. My husband said, "Now Elizabeth, let's make this spontaneous." Translated that means we do not talk about it ahead of time. Ladies and gentlemen, this was probably the most spontaneous event in the history of television. I, for one, forgot that there were all these millions of people out there watching, and it was like sitting across from your spouse at the breakfast table: much like discussing or debating or, more honestly, let's say, arguing about an issue. Maybe some of you have had that experience. And I remember that David Hartman asked the one and only question for 12 long minutes, "Do you think there should be a Consumer Protection Agency in the federal government," and we were off and running.
Now halfway through this program my husband said to me, "Elizabeth, I would really like to say something if I could get a word in here somewhere." He said that on national television. Can you believe that? And I said, "Bob, I have not made my point yet," and I kept right on going and I ignored him. Well, when all this was over, as you might imagine, we received quite a bit of mail.
There was a lady who wrote to my husband and said, "Dear Senator Dole, if you want to get anywhere in politics, if you want to be re-elected, you better get your wife to shut her mouth." That is exactly what she said, and that still hurts me to think about it.
And then there were those who wrote me and said you are right, he is wrong. How could he have such a dumb opinion? But the one for posterity is the man who wrote in and said I do hope you will soon be able to resolve your marital difficulties.
So while the Doles may have a little difference of views on an issue here or there once in a while, one thing on which we most definitely agree is our great respect and admiration for this wonderful university, and I am so happy to be with you today and to have the privilege of giving this lecture.
And I am reminded this afternoon of the words of President Eisenhower, who once said, "One of the things wrong with Washington, D.C., is that everyone has been away from home for far too long." Well, today I am delighted to be back in my adopted home.
And what a joy it is to return to a university I have long admired, and to participate in one of America's most respected lecture series, a series that honors a man whose life and work are constant inspirations to my husband and me.
Perhaps it is fitting that Alf Landon was born in 1887, the 100th birthday of our Constitution, and that he died in 1987, the bicentennial year of our Constitution. Fitting, because during his 100 years, Alf stood tall as the Kansas sunflower, fighting for the values our Constitution protects: values of opportunity, democracy, freedom.
Alf Landon was a man of remarkable common sense, who held fast to his convictions. Long before the message became popular, Alf warned of the dangers of too much government and excessive government spending. I remember that on his 90th birthday he said, "Credit cards are the worst things that have happened to our country; they encourage people to spend money they do not have."
Now, to the students here today, let me say your parents did not ask me to say that, but it is a message that my husband has tried for years to explain to certain senators and congressmen!
Seriously, I know that Bob relied on Alf's wisdom and counsel throughout his political career, and how fortunate Kansas and America are that Alf's daughter, Nancy, has continued the Landon legacy of devotion to public service during her 12 years in the United States Senate. Nancy Landon Kassebaum is a person for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration. She has earned a sterling reputation as a public servant of the highest intelligence and integrity.
My two most recent assignments in government service are that of Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Labor. In one I was charged with overseeing America's material resources: highway construction, railroads, air traffic control, ship building. As Labor Secretary, I have been charged with a very different mission: overseeing America's human resources, our most precious resource, resources that can only reach full potential if everybody counts.
"Everybody counts." This simple belief was stated more eloquently by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that we are each endowed with certain inalienable rights, including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
And over the years we have come to understand this to mean that the government would work to ensure that everyone has a chance at a good education, a decent job, and a secure retirement. And in return all citizens would accept a responsibility to work hard, provide for their family, and obey the law.
For more than 200 years this "social contract" has served as the glue that holds our society together. It provides the momentum that keeps America moving forward, ever forward. But I have seen troubling evidence that this contract is being breached. And for the past two years I believed that the mission of the Department of Labor must be to improve the state of our workforce, and the state of our nation, by doing what we can to ensure that, indeed, everybody counts.
Soon after my swearing in, I travelled across America to inner cities, and small town farms, and everything in between. I met with the shop owners and merchants on Main Street, the factory workers, coal miners in fact, I was down deep in a mine and those who live on the outskirts of hope, the dropouts, mothers on welfare with no skills and little education, children working illegally, and migrant workers.
And through these meetings it became clear to me that while our remarkable economic growth brought unparalleled opportunity for most Americans, there are those who have been left behind.
In 1981 the American economy and the American spirit were at their lowest levels. Families buying a home faced the highest interest rates since the Civil War. Senior citizens buying groceries were forced to make do with a 12 percent inflation rate. And young men and women seeking a job were staring at a double digit unemployment rate.
It was clear that economic policies had to be altered. And they were. As a result, 22 million new jobs were created, and the income of citizens in all five economic quintiles was increased. Yet as our economy moved to a new and higher level, it bypassed some with minimal education or skills. This can be seen in the statistics that reflect the fact that poverty is directly linked to educational levels. Twenty-one percent of those not completing high school are below the poverty level. That figure drops to 9 percent of those completing high school. And it drops to 3.5 percent of those completing at least one year of college. And only 2 percent of those working full-time, year around, are below the poverty level.
Now I have been around public service for 25 years, long enough to know that the Labor Department did not have all the answers and could not solve all our problems. But I believed that through the policies and programs of the Labor Department the "people's department" we could help in seeing that everybody counts.
I set three goals. I call them skills, safety, and security to guide our policies. Goals that would help achieve not just full employment, but fulfilling employment; not make work, but real work for all Americans who are willing to work.
First, fulfilling employment requires the education and the skills demanded by today's marketplace, a marketplace that becomes increasingly more global and complex day by day. Ladies and gentlemen, we face a workforce crisis. While the skills levels required in our workplace are increasing, 500,000 of our young people drop out of school each year, and some experts estimate that as many as 20 percent of our present workforce are functionally illiterate. Many have skills that are obsolete or soon will be obsolete because of the changes in technology. Two-thirds of those working today will still be working at the end of the century. So therein lies our challenge.
I will never forget the faces of the young men and women I have met in job training programs across America. I want to share a story or two about that because I remember so well meeting Tim Douglas, a young man from Brooklyn, New York. This was an alternative high school, and Tim had no idea I was going to call on him. I just walked in and visited with some of the students, and I pulled Tim aside and I said, "Tim, why did you drop out of high school? Tell me a little bit about your situation, and how you found this school." As we talked he said, "I was evil when I came here." And he said there was one teacher who kept coming after me, and I told her I do not want to talk to you, and I do not want anything you have to offer. Just leave me alone." And he said she kept coming after him, and finally she got through and met his grandmother who was raising him. Well that young man is now preparing to go to college.
I also met a young woman in Atlanta. She was 17 years old. Erica Carson. I was so impressed with these youngsters. These miracles that are occurring all around the country. These young people have been involved in the most negative behavior gangs, drugs, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, dropouts and yet their lives have been turned around. They are now optimistic and full of hope and they are ready to either go into the market or go on to college. So it occurred to me when I was about to testify before the United States Senate that I should bring some of them in to testify with me, because it is so much more compelling than for me to tell what I have seen.
I invited Tim and Erica and several others, and they appeared with me before the United States Senate. It was the most powerful testimony. It was absolutely incredible. In fact, I think there was applause four or five times in that hearing room, and there were tears as well, as Erica Carson talked about her mother being incarcerated for murder, her brother on marijuana. The problems that she had and how she was ready now to walk into any group and hold up her head and say, "I am Erica Carson and I am somebody."
Tim Douglas talked about his experience, and one of the senators broke in and said, "Tell me who that teacher was who kept coming after you." Well, she stood up behind me in the hearing room, and they went wild. The applause was incredible because it showed what one person could do.
So this is the kind of experience that I have had as I have travelled America. These young people are now my extended family. I take them on television with me so that our business community can see what these young people can do. We cannot give up on them. There is every reason to help them with the skills that they need to lead a fulfilling life and to be citizens who can utilize their full potential for America. But there are too many children who face the future, not with hope, but with pessimism, as Tim and Erica once did. They believe they do not count, that their lives do not matter. This attitude is bred and returned in unwillingness to fulfill even the basic duties of citizenship.
As columnist William Raspberry has written, "They drop out of school, or get through school with minimal academic effort, because they do not believe that academic exertion will make much difference in their lives. They become adolescent parents because they see no good reason for postponing, or even being particularly careful with, sexual activity. They sell drugs because the money is attractive and the risk of a police record seems small when measured against their chances of success in the legitimate world."
Ladies and gentlemen, where these young Americans are concerned the social contract is in tatters. And I take great pride in the fact that much of my work at the Labor Department has been aimed at helping turn these young lives around, putting the social contract back together for America's at-risk youth. I tried to change the thrust of the Job Training and Partnership Act, focusing on the least skilled and most disadvantaged young Americans. I believe that we must provide more than just training for a job, but also basic skills training, literacy, counseling, remedial education: a total support system.
Our mission includes helping kids understand that doing well in school means they will do well at work, and helping schools understand that they must prepare students for the realities of today's workplace. And our innovations are helping this happen.
And while government cannot heal the pain of broken families, or instill values when parents fail to, we can work to create an atmosphere that lets our youth know that they do count. Through our Youth Opportunities Unlimited, or YOU grants, we are reaching into high poverty areas and strengthening communities. We want to make youth feel they are the center of their communities, that there is much to hope for in their future, indeed, that they are the hope of our future.
In this mission, I have asked for the help of America's businessmen and women. After all, we have a shrinking workforce. Our workforce is growing at its slowest rate in 40 years. Businesses will no longer have the luxury of skimming the cream off the labor market. America will need every one of us. Business must do more to help provide the skills, education, and motivation to give all our young people a chance.
I have asked America's businesses to allow 10 percent of their workforce the leeway to become involved in mentoring, in helping to point out the potholes on the road of life, to listen, to offer support, to let kids know that they count. And I intend to continue to speak out on the benefits of mentoring in my new role as president of the American Red Cross. In fact, Bill Lee, who is the chief executive officer of Duke Power Company, said, "Elizabeth, I have 19,000 employees; I will give you 1,900 mentors." And it is wonderful to see businesses picking up on this, because one person saying "I care" can make all the difference in the world in these young lives. Many of them have no one.
And then there are the forgotten youth, the 50 percent who graduate from high school and do not go on to college. Many of these move from low-paying job to low-paying job, with little chance of moving up the wage ladder. Businessmen and women tell me constantly that they have jobs to offer, but the youth coming out of high school do not have the skills, the credentials, to fill them.
Thus, I have appointed a blue-ribbon commission of business leaders, labor leaders, and education leaders, and charged them with the mission of hammering out national competency guidelines that reflect work readiness. These guidelines can then be used for curriculum development and for promotion and graduation.
The United States is one of the few industrialized nations without a formal school to work transition. Given the slow growth of our workforce, we simply cannot afford to sit idly by, as the youth move from low-paying job to low-paying job, without receiving any meaningful training that can lead to a successful career.
I recently convened the first-ever national conference on the school-to-work population. At this conference, education, business, and labor leaders highlighted new innovations in school-to-work transitions, like the "2 + 2" program where students spend their final two years in high school and two additional years in a community college, pursuing an integrated curriculum both in the classroom and in the workplace. Employers serve as partners with education, hiring and training students during the learning process and bridging that difficult school-to-work transition. Those attending the conference pledged to work with me in building similar innovations through a series of demonstration grants I recently awarded.
Teddy Roosevelt once said that, "Far and away, the best prize life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Well, from developing working definitions of what skills employers require on the job, to building new school-to-work transition programs, to expanding the principle of apprenticeship so that workers will have "portable credentials," we are ensuring that all Americans can claim that prize, that they all have the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing.
As we worked to provide Americans with the skills needed to succeed in the workforce, we also focused attention on the fact that some women and minorities, who already had all the skills required, were still blocked from moving up the ladder.
And as the Department of Labor pursued the opening of doors for women and minorities, I could not help but think back over my own career, beginning with my days as a student at Harvard Law School. There were 550 members of the Class of 1965, and only 24 were women. On the first day of class, a male student came up to me and asked what I was doing there. In what can only be described as tones of moral outrage, he said, "Don't you realize that there are men who would give their right arm to be in this law school, men who would use their legal education?"
That man is now a senior partner in a Washington law firm. And every so often I share this little story around town. I really enjoy sharing that story. You would be amazed at the number of male classmates who have called me to say, "Please tell me I am not the one! Tell me I did not say that, Elizabeth!" You know, I am going to let them worry about it awhile.
Today more than 40 percent of the Harvard Law School class are women, and, indeed, the number of women professionals lawyers and doctors, for instance, has almost doubled since 1972, and the number of women in managerial jobs has almost tripled.
There can be little doubt, however, that a woman or a member of a minority, no matter how well schooled, what the age, or how thick the portfolio or credentials enters many business organizations with limited or no hope of reaching the top. The positions of power and decision making in business are still held primarily by men. For example, of the CEOs of the 500 largest companies in America, only one is black and only two are women.
It seems that there is a ceiling a "glass ceiling," if you work, where women and minorities can see that top, but are blocked from reaching it by invisible and impenetrable barriers. Through an examination of developmental programs, training, rotational assignments, and reward structures, all the indicators of upward mobility in corporate America. We are working to see that the glass ceiling meets the same fate as the Berlin Wall! And you can bet that I practiced what I preached. Sixty-two percent of my Department of Labor senior staff are women or minorities. And I am proud to work for a President who has appointed more women to senior level positions than any other President in history.
Let me return now to the three goals of which we spoke. Our second goal has been safety: protecting our workers on the job. And as with skills, this also begins with our young people. The laws prohibiting kids working too many hours in dangerous jobs have been on the books for more than 50 years. There was no need to create a new child labor program to deal with a growing number of violations. I just told my compliance officers to enforce the law. So four strike forces went into the field, and we got the message out that the "cop is on the beat," and we are going to stay there.
Physical safety is a concern, indeed, a basic right of all our workers. And from the moment I took office, I have sent an unequivocal message to those who are responsible for the health and safety of workers: everybody counts. The only acceptable compliance with safety requirements is full compliance. And our actions provide the evidence that this is more than just mere rhetoric.
In my first days at the Department of Labor, I requested ad received a 10 percent increase in OSHA inspectors, the first such request in a decade. And we have set our sights on tackling the highest hazard problems, such as repetitive motion illnesses, which account for 48 percent of all work-related illnesses, and the occupations with the highest number of injuries, such as mining and construction.
Perhaps the one safety initiative that will save the most lives and prevent the most injuries involves automotive safety, as 37 percent of the workplace fatalities in America occur in motor vehicle crashes.
The value of safety belts has been proven in the most difficult testing laboratory of all: our highways. Six years ago, during my service at the Transportation Department, I put into place "Rule 208," requiring that every new car has an air bag or automatic safety belt. This rule also spawned 36 state safety belt laws, and to date almost 20,000 lives have been saved. More lives will be saved under our new Department of Labor regulation, which requires employers to ensure that employees who operate a motor vehicle on the job use safety belts and that those who ride a motorcycle as part of their job wear a helmet.
By providing skills, we ensured that those who want to work count. By providing safety, we ensured that those who are working count. And by providing security, we ensured that those who have retired from work count.
When I travelled to the coal fields of southwest Virginia last fall to witness firsthand the dispute between the Pittston Coal Company and the United Mine Workers, I saw a community in turmoil. I walked the picket lines and spoke with miners, their widows, and their families. There were many tears as they told me of their worry that commitments had been broken, that the system was failing them. Funds for retiree health benefits were in the red. Health care costs were skyrocketing. And the percentage of coal companies contributing to the retirement fund had dropped from 80 percent to 30 percent.
I decided to step in, to use the good offices of the Secretary of Labor, to facilitate the collective bargaining process. I called in the parties and received their agreement to the appointment of a supermediator. We reached a settlement when most said none was possible.
And to address the problem of retiree health benefits, a pivotal issue of the 90s, I appointed a blue ribbon commission, chaired by former Secretary of Labor Bill Usery, charged with reviewing the pension and health care issue. The commission reported recently with forward-looking cost containment recommendations.
As I expected on such a complex issue, the commission debate was lively and contentious on all sides. In my opinion, that is good. We have got to face this problem now. We cannot back away because it is controversial. It is precisely because the problem is big, because it is contentious, because it is fundamental to both our workers and our businesses, that we must address it now. Let us not let it go the way of the S and L crisis and the budget deficit. The sooner we tackle it, the sooner it will be behind us, and that is good for everyone.
Ladies and gentlemen, as I said, the Labor Department does not have all the answers, nor can it address but a small portion of America's challenges. But each of us must start with our own corner of the world. Each of us in this room and all across the nation must do what we can to ensure that here in America, everybody does still count. It is part of the deal. It is fundamental to the social contract. If the state of our nation and the state of our workforce is to remain strong, then that contract must be strong.
And so, my friends, what is the state of America's workforce this October afternoon? I believe it is more skilled, safer, and more secure, thanks to our efforts of the last two years.
Tackling issues such as the ones I have dealt with at the Department of Labor and throughout my 25 year public service career is precisely what makes a career in public service so rewarding.
Let me say to the students here today, that wherever you go after leaving Kansas State, I sincerely hope you will consider public service at some time in your lives, whether it be at the local, state, or federal level. For while you may not get rich, you will enrich the lives of millions of your countrymen. Your rewards may not be material, but rather the satisfaction of service, of making a difference, a positive difference in people's lives.
Let me just leave you this afternoon by sharing one of the most memorable experiences of my life: walking through the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland, with Lech Walesa. We talked about the history being written by the courageous citizens of his country, across Europe, and around the world. And with a smile, Walesa told me the definition of a Communist economic enterprise: "100 workers standing around a single shovel." Then he said, "What Poland needs is 100 shovels."
Since then, I have thought a lot about that conversation. He was talking about men and women who had no role to play in their economy or their nation, their destinies decided not by individual effort, but by the government. In short, they just did not count.
That feeling of futility, as much as anything, helped bring about the remarkable springtime of democracy that soon swept Eastern Europe. Millions of working men and women were finally fed up with a system in which they made not a dime's worth of difference.
It was not all that long ago in the sweep of history when we, too, were governed by absentee landlords who refused to allow us a voice in our own destiny. Our voice was gained, and our destiny changed, by a group of patriots who met in Philadelphia in 1776.
The world has turned over many times since then, and in the past two centuries, the torch has been passed from generation to generation. But our mission remains the same. Our cause endures.
My service at the Department of Labor will soon be complete. My goal there has been to make a difference, a positive difference, in the life of our country and her people. And if I could write my own legacy for the men and women who served with me, it would simply be, "They did their best to keep the contract intact. They did their best to ensure that everybody counts."
Thank you and God bless you.