National League of Cities Congressional City Conference

National League of Cities Excerpts from Speech to Congressional City Conference by U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman March 8, 1999

...The partnership we have forged together recognizes that the old ways won’t work in the new economy. That’s why President Clinton and Vice President Gore are redefining our relationship with local communities.

And it’s why we at the Labor Department are pursuing strategies that are locally based-implementing solutions that are locally driven. In short, we are building on ideas at the community level to build a stronger American community.

And now is the time to do it. Our economy is strong. Our cities are strong. Unemployment is at record lows.

As the President has said, the sun is shining on our economy. Our challenge is to make sure that light fills in the gaps in our country. The pay gaps. The opportunity gaps. And, of course, the skills gap.

Because as Secretary of Labor, I have often said we don’t have a worker shortage in this country. We have a skills shortage.

So how do we meet the challenge? By continuing to focus on three areas where together we are making a difference.

By making sure families have the opportunity to move off welfare, young people have the chance to move into the economic mainstream-and workers have the skills to move into the 21st century. Let me take each challenge in turn. First welfare-to-work.

We’ve seen an historic decline in welfare rolls. They’re at their lowest level in 30 years. We should be proud of that.

But you and I know success isn’t just about getting people off the welfare rolls, it’s about getting them on the payrolls. It’s about getting families on the road to real independence, to real security, to real dignity.

Despite the strong economy, some families face high obstacles on that road. They may have never worked before. They may be disabled or victims of domestic violence. They may not know English well-or perhaps they can’t read. They may have substance abuse problems.

These are tough, tough cases. But we know welfare reform won’t succeed unless they do. And communities can’t succeed unless they have the flexibility and the resources to help these families get on the right road.

So President Clinton and Vice President Gore working with Congress-created a $3 billion Department of Labor Welfare-to-Work initiative. It targets families who face the longest road and the highest obstacles. Instead of another inside-the-beltway program, we have invested in ideas that are outside the box.

You were instrumental in helping us secure these resources and I want you to know we are getting funds out in the field. We are awarding competitive grants and 44 states are participating in the formula grant process. 85% of those funds go directly to local communities.

We’re making a difference everyday and make no mistake, employers are getting it. They understand this is a pool of talent. They’re recognizing that welfare reform isn’t about a so-called race to the bottom. It’s about the bottom line.

So it’s no surprise that the business-led Welfare-to-Work Partnership has signed up 10,000 businesses and they’ve hired 400,000 workers.

But we’re also learning that employers are increasingly turning to community-based strategies for help in finding workers and for support once they are on the job. So keeping up this investment is all the more important.

Businesses need help. Communities need help. Families need help.

That’s why President Clinton’s budget reauthorizes our Welfare-to-Work program for another year and invests an additional $1 billion to help communities help families. We’re in the middle of an historic change; a sea change in policy. This critical investment comes at a critical time.

And as the welfare rolls have gone down, our understanding about how to meet this challenge has gone up. We’ve learned. We’ve listened. And we believe we know what it takes to help finish the job.

First, it takes flexibility at the local level. You’ve told us we need to simplify eligibility requirements for our grants. We’re proposing to do just that. We also know now that families in many states are facing time limits well, we don’t want our resources to run out on them.

Second, we know the challenge isn’t just about getting a job, it’s about keeping a job. So we are investing in community solutions like child care, housing, mentoring, substance abuse treatment, and of course transportation. Because you can’t get on the road to success if you can’t get on the road.

Third, we’re putting a special focus on what has been for too long a missing part of the welfare equation and that is fathers. We want to strengthen families so we’re going to help fathers connect to jobs and reconnect with their children. This isn’t about deadbeat dads, you can’t pay child support when you don’t have a job. This is about upbeat dads who need to contribute to the upbringing of their family.

We’ve made progress but we can’t declare victory. Employers are still looking for workers. People on welfare are still looking for jobs. And as long as they’re not working our work isn’t done. I thank you for all you are doing. I thank you for your support for reauthorization-let’s keep working together. Let’s finish the job.

As we look to the challenge of filling the skills gap, the second area I want to focus on is our young people-particularly disadvantaged youth living in high poverty areas.

Today almost 15 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not enrolled in school. About 90% don’t have a college degree and 70% have a high school degree or less.

And if there is one statistic above all that stands out for me as Secretary of Labor, it is this. When I headed the Women’s Bureau at the Labor Department 20 years ago the annual unemployment rate for black teens was over thirty percent. Twenty years later, when I returned to the Department that statistic was still 30 percent.

My friends, it is time to move a fact like that from the statistics books to where it belongs-and that’s the history books.

And one of the keys is by learning from good ideas being implemented at the local level.

There are many ingredients to a successful strategy. But I believe they can be boiled down to two core points. We need to focus on the whole person. And we need to engage the whole community.

Focusing on the whole person means understanding that it takes more than so-called hard skills to make it in today’s economy. You need soft skills or life skills, too.

Someone training to be a carpenter, in this age, needs computer skills. Of course, they need to know how to nail a board. But they also need to know how to nail an interview.

We also need to engage the whole community. In too many areas, the basic social fabric has been torn apart. And it will take the whole community-police, labor unions, schools, faith-based organizations, all of you-to weave it back together.

You helped us secure over $1 billion in resources over four years to invest in these whole person/whole community strategies. Later this spring, the Department will announce a new competitive grant process to award Youth Opportunity grants.

And I encourage you to consider applying for these funds. Because in the new economy, we don’t have a person to waste and we certainly don’t have a generation to lose.

Let me also congratulate the NLC for your work in this area-in particular, for involving youth through the NLC Youth Advisory Board and in engaging young people in the policy making process for our nation’s cities. Thank you for your leadership.

And, of course, you have also been leaders when it comes to the third and final challenge I want to talk about today, to fill the skills gap-and that is making sure every worker is equipped with the tools to build their own future.

And one key ingredient is successful implementation of the most sweeping job training reform in a generation-the Workforce Investment Act.

Since the President signed this into law last August, we at the Labor Department have been working hard, talking with you, your staffs, the states, counties - about how best to move from the old Job Training Partnership Act to the Workforce Investment system of the 21st century.

This is a major undertaking. Between July 1st this year and July 1, 2000, all the states and local communities will transition from the old order to the new Workforce Investment system.

We appreciate the efforts you and your staffs have put in to make this a success. You’ve been to all our meetings. You’ve written letters. You’ve participated in consultation sessions in Washington and all over the country. It has helped us enormously.

I want you to know that we hope to publish the Interim Final Regulations later this month. And, once again, we want to see that there is less intrusion and less red tape. We want to give you more initiative and more authority.

Because the old ways won’t work. Top-down won’t work. The new law puts a premium on partnerships across levels of government and with business, labor, educators and community-based organizations.

And if you are not already involved in this process in your state, I encourage you to get involved. Get your best people involved. Your leadership will go a long way to making sure that reform is done and done right.

Let me just conclude by saying we are at a unique moment. We have a booming economy. We have businesses looking for workers.

We have a bipartisan consensus to solving many of these challenges. And we have a new relationship with cities and communities built on partnership and flexibility. All the pieces are there.

We need to fit them together. We need to open the doors. To close the gaps. To make sure every American has 21st century skills for 21st century jobs.

With your leadership and your partnership, I know we will do it. I know you will do what you have always done you will keep putting things in the right place and moving America in the right direction.

U.S. Mayor

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