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Chao's Challenge The New World of Work

May 27, 2001
Related Topics: Ergonomics and Facilities, Immigration, Featured Article
Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, confirmed by unanimous vote in the Senate onJanuary 29, immigrated to the United States from Taiwan as a child, and hasearned distinction for her achievements ever since.

She received an MBA atHarvard University, worked as a capital markets banker, and has served as adirector on the boards of several major corporations.

During the previous Bushadministration, she worked as a deputy secretary of the Department ofTransportation. From there she briefly headed the Peace Corps in 1991, beforegoing to United Way of America in 1992 to help the agency recover from afinancial scandal.

At the time of her appointment as labor secretary, she was afellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.

She is married toSenator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).

Secretary Chao, considering your background, my first question is, what didyour parents say on hearing of your confirmation as labor secretary?
They were very pleased and very proud. When I came to this country, I waseight years old and didn't speak a word of English. There were some hard timesfor my family, but my parents never gave up, never stopped believing in thepromise of America.
Long term, will the United States have to rely on immigrant workers as itcurrently does to sustain high-tech industries? How can the Department of Laborimprove its programs to train American workers for high-tech jobs?
We are all immigrants to this country. Immigrants will have a part inbuilding the workforce of the 21st century. For example, there is the need forhighly skilled workers and our H-1B temporary worker visas, which allowcompanies to fill needed high-tech positions. But that is just one way to lookat the issue, and we will be looking at many others as we prepare a long-termapproach to filling high-tech jobs.
Preparing the workforce for the 21st centuryis my highest priority. The new economy, the Internet economy, presents almostlimitless opportunities: thousands of good-paying, stimulating jobs withlimitless potential for advancement. As one of my first acts, I am creating anew Office of the 21st CenturyWorkforce. It will examine this opportunity, andthe challenges we need to overcome to truly take advantage of the amazingchanges that are going on around us.
This spring, that office, along with theWhite House, will convene a summit on the 21st-century workforce where we willcall on leaders from business, labor unions, government, and elsewhere toaddress the structural changes that are affecting our workforce and our economy.We are going to proactively work to equip every American worker to takeadvantage of the tremendous opportunities the new economy offers. (The summit isJune 20 in Washington, D.C.)
In more general terms, how can the Department of Labor help improve skillsets in the American workforce and match the right skills to the right jobs?
This is the challenge of the new economy. In America today, there are thousands-- tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of high-tech jobsthat cannot be filled, while at the same time there are millions of Americanswho cannot currently fill them. That is the challenge that this labor departmentfaces.
America is the greatest country in the world. We have the best andbrightest of minds. The purpose of the Summit on the 21st Century Workforce isto draw national attention and thus the best minds and resources of our countryto find solutions.
For example, I will work to ensure that President Bush'sefforts to reauthorize welfare-to-work are complemented by new one-step job-training centers administered at the local level, as provided by the newWorkforce Investment Act.
Regarding the OSHA ergonomics standard just rejected byCongress: how serious is the problem of workplace musculoskeletaldisorders (MSDs), including cumulative trauma problemslike carpal tunnel syndrome? Should OSHA issue a revised standard?
I am committed to a comprehensive approach to reducing repetitive-stressinjuries, and I am interested in working with all of those interested in thisimportant issue to find effective ways to address it.
We need to build on thesuccesses that many employers and employees have already achieved. About half ofall U.S. workers are employed by companies that have addressed ergonomics. Thatincludes those who work for companies recognized by OSHA for their exemplarysafety and health programs under the Voluntary Protection Programs, acooperative venture in workplace safety and health.
I know that OSHA has beenconcerned about this problem for 20 years -- long before it developed an ergonomicsstandard. There are a number of resources available to employers on OSHA's Website, including electronic advisors dealing with common situations that putworkers at risk for repetitive-stress injuries. OSHA also offers assistance tosmall businesses that would like help in addressing safety and health issues,including ergonomics, through the consultation program offered by stateauthorities in all 50 states.
How could a revised standard be less expensive for employers and easier tofollow, and yet still reduce MSDs?
The question is, is a one-size-fits-all approach the most efficient? Theanswer is almost always no. I believe we can attack this problem in a way thatis both more effective and easier for employers. We need to approach laws andregulations using common sense. I can guarantee that that will be our approachwith ergonomics, just as it will be with every issue we tackle over the comingyears.
What other approaches to reducing MSDs are you considering? Does OSHA alreadyhave other vehicles for reducing MSDs, such as cooperative programs withemployers?
One thing to remember is that the ergonomics standards in question only wentinto effect in January. Of course, that doesn't mean OSHA was ignoringrepetitive-stress injuries up until a few months ago. We've been working on thisproblem for more than a decade. During that time, OSHA has and will continue tomonitor, regulate, and, if necessary, litigate ergonomics issues as the needarises. As I mentioned, protecting the safety and health of American workers isone of the reasons we're here. That is not going to change, whatever theultimate outcome of a new ergonomics process.
Do you support the experimental program to fund FMLA birth/adoption leavewith unemployment insurance? What criteria will you use inassessing this experiment?
We're not sure yet. We're just starting to examine some of these tough issuesas part of the process of formulating policy.
Hitching FMLA to unemployment has problems, but it's one approach towork/life balance. Is work/life balance just a myth? Can the Department of Laboractually do something positive in this area?
The new economy, I think, will help foster a healthy balance between the homeand the workplace. We are only just starting to realize the tremendous benefitsof using the Internet to work at home.
Employers faced with employee andwork-space shortages are coming to realize that the Internet economy is going toallow them and their employees more freedom, more options, than ever before.Imagine what it will mean for a family to eliminate the hour or more commutethat keeps parents from seeing their children, spending time with their spouses,and just taking time to read, relax, indulge in a hobby?
My family has been soimportant to me, and I want to do everything possible so that the Americanworkforce not only is the best trained and most productive in the world, but canbe so without giving up a life with a family and a home.
Any employer knows it must support diversity in the workplace to succeed. Isthat enough to assure a fair workplace, or do we need federal laws protectinghomosexuals and lesbians from arbitrary employment practices?
First of all, let me say as I have said before that I am strongly opposed todiscrimination of any sort, and I will enforce the law as it is enacted. And asfor firms that contract with the federal government, there is and will be strongenforcement of discrimination laws. That will not change.
Is the Americans with Disabilities Act a valuable complement to theDepartment of Labor and its goals? How do you see that relationship evolving?
We have made amazing progress in opening the workplace to disabled Americans,and we plan to continue doing so. We have a new Office of Disability EmploymentPolicy as well as a new assistant secretary to oversee these issues. Both thepresident and I would like to go even further.
The president has talked about a New Freedom Initiative that will use the technology of the new economy to givedisabled Americans even greater access to work opportunities. This is a 10-year,$1 billion multi-departmental effort to enhance the independence, the employmentopportunities, and the community involvement for millions of Americans withdisabilities.
This administration will support loan programs and guarantees thatwill enable people with disabilities to purchase the technology that they needto be independent and productive. The program will also promote strongerinvestments in research and development to make assistive technology more widelyavailable.
As I said during my confirmation hearing, we must remember what worktruly means to most of us: it is not just a way of paying the bills, but also apathway to gaining respect and human dignity.

Workforce, June 2001, pp. 90-93 --  SubscribeNow!

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