Shawn Escoffery | Program Director, Strong Local Economies| Nov. 26, 2013

perez labor

Last week I was in Washington at a listening session with Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and his team. The Department of Labor (DOL) brought together workforce funders for a meet and greet with the new Secretary. We were also there to share with Secretary Perez what we’re doing in the field, our opinions about DOL, and to identify opportunities to work together. Already, many of us are excited about what we think is going to be a very different DOL under Secretary Perez’s leadership.

The Secretary opened the meeting with a few remarks about what he has seen around the country in his first 128 days in office. He talked about a meeting in St. Louis with low wage workers and the struggles he saw of people living on minimum wage. He pointed out that when communities are faced with the loss of a major economic driver--think the autoworkers in Detroit or coal miners in Kentucky—we often tend to overlook the huge impact it has on workers’ mental health. When multiple generations of your family worked in the same industry and now it's gone.....the need for healing is typically ignored. Secretary Perez candidly discussed the inefficiencies at DOL and the multiple agencies that have job training dollars. I’m encouraged that he is eager to break down DOL’s internal silos. 

shawn dol

Surdna's Shawn Escoffery at meeting with Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez

Two growing challenges facing the country, that are especially concerning to him and that have reverberating impacts : getting the long term unemployed back to work; and youth unemployment / opportunity youth. (Most funders no longer use the term “disconnected youth”). Jennifer Hunt, DOL's chief economist, explained that the true unemployment picture is closer to 13%. It’s closer to reality because it factors in people who have stopped looking for work or are taking part time work after more than 26 weeks of unemployment.

Hunt said the unemployment rates for youth 16-24 are in the 30-40% range. And, they’re disproportionately youth of color. Despite the economic recovery, there are roughly 3.5 unemployed people for every new job. We are simply not producing enough jobs.

I know the numbers are sobering, but there was plenty of hope and fight around the table. At the meeting were people from Hitachi, Chase, AARP, Joyce, Rockefeller, Mott, Ford, Weinberg, Alcoa and Walmart. The Secretary asked each of us to talk about what we are doing in the workforce space, our critique of the DOL, and what role we would like to see DOL play. The comments from around the table were great and many of them resonate with Surdna’s approach to building strong local economies. One funder suggested that DOL champion quality job creation—and not just through training. And, of course, several of us talked about DOL’s role in the fight to increase the minimum wage.

Several of my comments definitely resonated with the Secretary, as he noted three of them in his closing remarks. I described to him how Surdna is focusing on quality job creation while also addressing economic policy and improving low wage work. It was clear to him and others  in the room that Surdna's work is a departure from typical workforce funding.

I also discussed the challenges of the current economy and the meager opportunities for low income people. In my critique of job training and perceived career pathways, I underscored to the Secretary and other funders how we must all start thinking and acting differently: When a person goes through training, gets a job, and starts walking the career path, we have to remember LIFE HAPPENS! There are so many obstacles and every day occurrences that can derail a worker's pursuit of career and economic mobility.

In my critique of the DOL, I noted their absence in most of the sustainable communities’ conversations, as well as in interagency efforts to improve the federal government, or funding flows like Strong Cities Strong Communities.

I suggested that DOL should be working directly with EPA around issues related to water infrastructure. And, that it is imperative that they partner with public utilities companies (PUCs). Over the next five years, a significant portion of PUC employees around the country will soon retire. DOL could work with PUCs to create a pipeline of well-trained new workers to keep the taps flowing.

Despite the suggestions and DOL’s receptivity to them, I couldn’t have left  the meeting without making one more appeal for increasing the federal minimum wage.

The Secretary also talked about the need to engage the private sector in meaningful conversations and partnerships. There are two challenges that surface immediately with the business sector. First, small businesses who could greatly benefit from workforce partnerships are often ignored because the low number of jobs created by an individual business. In aggregate, however, the job growth from these businesses rivals major corporations. Second, some major retailers and other industries provide low wage jobs with limited career pathways. As a result, their employees must often rely on social safety net subsidies to survive. These partnerships often contradict the agencies’ efforts in promoting quality jobs.

All in all, it was a great meeting and there was lots of interest in meeting again to talk real strategies for working with DOL. It's great to know how committed the Secretary is to improving the lives if low income people.

As a former civil rights attorney, he said one of the greatest civil rights you can give a person is a good job.

I'm looking forward to working with DOL more closely this year.

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