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Interview with U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman

September 1, 1997
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Related Topics: The HR Profession, Labor Relations, Featured Article
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More than 100 years ago, the first Labor Day was established in New York City. That was on September 5, 1882. Now Labor Day is a national holiday, and as the United States once again pays tribute to the American worker, human resources professionals can join the legion of employers, unions and government officials in celebrating the evolution of today's dynamic workplace.

Among those top government officials is Alexis M. Herman, 49, the nation's 23rd U.S. Secretary of Labor-appointed by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in April with an 85 to 3 vote. She succeeds Robert B. Reich who resigned last year for personal reasons.

As secretary of labor, Herman will enforce U.S. labor laws and regulate workplace activities as required by laws. Her duties fall under the U.S. Department of Labor's mission, which is to "foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions and their opportunities for profitable employment."

As a Cabinet member, the secretary of labor also counsels the president on American workplace policies. Herman also is a member of more than 30 councils, committees and boards, such as the President's Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry. Some of the principal laws the secretary administers include: the Job Training Partnership Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Unemployment Insurance and the Consumer Credit Protection Act.

After her first 100 days in office, Herman recently gave Workforce an exclusive interview. She survived a tough confirmation process that took several months (see the end of this article for information on how to obtain fax material describing Herman's confirmation hearings) and has since drafted a game plan that reveals her commitment to creating partnerships between management and labor, ensuring the rights of women and minorities, and furthering the competency and skill level of America's workforce. Described as unusually pro-business for a labor secretary in a Democratic administration, she prides herself in building bridges to Corporate America since her days as a management consultant and a liaison with company executives for the White House.

As human resources leaders ponder the future of labor-management relations and the workforce in general, Herman's forward-thinking agenda is reassuring. Below are her comments:

Q: Now that you've been confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor, what do you consider the key elements of your agenda-and why?
A: In my testimony before the Senate, before my confirmation, and at every opportunity since then, I've presented my five goals for the Labor Department. First, we must equip every working American with the skills to find and hold a good job with a rising income throughout his or her life. Our economy is part of an ultracompetitive, and often unforgiving, global marketplace. In this economy, the workers who succeed are going to be those who are able to improve their skills throughout their careers.

My second goal is to help people move from welfare to work. I understand with all my heart that fulfilling work and a decent paycheck are the two most direct paths to human dignity. But it will take a profound depth of commitment to learn what skills employers are looking for, to equip welfare recipients with those skills and then to convince employers to hire them.

Third, I want to assure that working Americans are secure when, as labor leader Walter Reuther used to say, they're "too old to work and too young to die." Our department's responsibility to working Americans doesn't end when they retire. We must safeguard private pension funds and encourage workers to save on their own for retirement.

Fourth, we in the Department of Labor will guarantee every working American a safe and healthy workplace, with the rights and respect he or she deserves-and with equal opportunity for all. If an employer's practices threaten workers' safety and health, if an employer discriminates on the basis of gender, race or disability, or if the company deprives workers of fair wages, then tough enforcement is necessary. But our ultimate goal is compliance with employment laws, not punishment for its own sake.

My fifth and final goal is to help working people balance work and family because Americans must be able to succeed at home as well as on the job. Companies with policies that support families find it's simply good business and good family values.

Q: What do you anticipate will be the greatest obstacle to finding common ground between business and labor? What assets will help you achieve success?
A: [As a society,] we're still trying to form that "more perfect union," both in our nation and in our workplaces. I believe it's possible for this country to move toward a remarkable era of broadly shared prosperity. But first, we must begin by facing-seriously and realistically-the issues that continue to tear us apart. We must begin, through honest and constructive dialogue, to work through the issues that divide us, whether it's fair pay, safe and healthy working conditions, moving from welfare to work-and, yes, racism and sexism.

As a black woman who was born and raised in the South, I easily could have become bitter. But in fact, I've been blessed, because I have always focused on the positive. I refuse to buy into stereotypes, and my experiences with bad people are completely outweighed by those who are good.

Q: Given your previous experience managing HR in the private sector, what would you say are some of today's key human resources issues?
A: Number one is that skills matter. Evidence suggests that Americans with inadequate training and education and no technological expertise will face declining wages or unemployment. As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, many more low-skilled or unskilled workers in the United States will be displaced by more sophisticated technology or confined to an ever-diminishing part of the job market. For those who maintain their skills, the changes are likely to bring rewards.

We must begin, through honest and constructive dialogue, to work through the issues that devide us.

Second, Americans are getting older. Baby boomers who have prepared well for their retirements may be in a good position to retire. But what about everyone else? This is of particular concern to women who outlive men and are less likely to be covered by pensions. Sixty percent of all working women have no pension coverage. That's a figure we need to increase.

Third, America is becoming more culturally diverse every day. This offers enormous potential for more creative and innovative workplaces.

Q: What were your greatest lessons from your previous HR experience?
A: President Clinton often has said that this country doesn't have a person to waste. And I believe that the same thing is true of companies. In the 1980s, I spent most of my time advising companies on how to create a climate of understanding so those hired would stay on and succeed in their corporate cultures.

This is far from being an altruistic notion. It's a bottom-line issue. I know from experience that corporate success is maximized only when every worker at every level is enlisted as a partner in the effort to achieve top performance. The benefits of using the talents of every employee rebound not just to the employees, but also to the companies themselves.

Q: What kinds of labor-management trends are shaping the workforce of tomorrow?
A: I think any time we see true labor-management cooperation, we'll see innovation. I want to particularly recognize and congratulate the Service Employees International Union and other AFL-CIO unions at Kaiser Permanente for endorsing a landmark partnership to review national business strategies on issues affecting the quality of health care. It's an important breakthrough on one of the nation's toughest issues.

The Communications Workers of America, to use another example, is doing some great work with U S West, along with the Labor Department, to provide continuing education and skills development for the workers at the company. Its Pathways program, which provides tuition reimbursement, career planning assistance and skills assessment, is a perfect example of the kind of partnership that's possible between labor, business-and in this case-government. It's one I hope will be duplicated by other companies and other industries.

Q: How do you think HR leaders can become more strategic partners in their companies?
A: My advice would be to base their recommendations on the best available information. They need to acknowledge that technology and human capital aren't substitutes but complements. They must help companies and workers prepare for change through the use of technology, transition planning and training. They also need to help companies think about how to creatively recruit and retain workers by adopting nontraditional working arrangements and family-friendly practices. To do this they should learn what the best companies, even their competitors, are doing and learn from their successes and their failures.

Q: Which HR functions do you believe are taking on greater importance as we move toward the 21st century?
A: If I were a human resources manager, I'd give attention to several areas. Among them:

Training and development: For a number of years now, we've heard it said, and have said repeatedly, that no longer should a worker expect to begin and end his or her career with the same employer. As the workforce continues to change, employees should possess the necessary basic skills that will allow for lifelong learning to meet the demands of a shifting job market.

Recruitment and staffing: Particularly in an era of change and restructuring in both the workforce and the workplace, achieving a goal of hiring and retaining the best workers will be a real challenge.

Flexibility/work and family: Although alternative work schedules-flextime, part-time, job sharing, compressed workweeks and telecommuting-were originally designed to help working mothers balance work and family, recent surveys and some actual experiences show that more men are interested in and using these provisions than previously thought. Also, the issue of child care has been joined by that of elder care, especially as many baby boomers are now expressing concerns relating to the care of parents and other relatives.

Pay and benefits: The question of pay equity must be appropriately addressed as a fairness issue that particularly affects women and minorities in the workplace. Several states and some companies are evaluating jobs as a way of determining fair pay for all employees, irrespective of gender and race.

Retirement planning: Never has it been more important nor have there been so many options available to prepare for retirement. We in the department will continue to do everything possible to safeguard pension funds, while smart employers will find new and more effective ways of encouraging workers to save for retirement.

Workforce diversity and discrimination: Although affirmative action is repeatedly coming under fire, there's still a great need to address this issue in terms of discrimination faced by women and minorities. We know from the calls and letters we get at the department that sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and other forms of disrespect on the job are still a problem for many.

Q: Where have you seen innovations between the private and public sector in terms of job training?
A: The National Skills Standards Board is a good example. This unique organization was created by Congress in 1994 with bipartisan support and is composed of leaders of business, education, labor and community affairs. It's charged with encouraging a business-led effort to develop a voluntary, national system that spells out skill requirements across broad economic sectors. The board's work is helping business specify the knowledge, skills and abilities a worker should have to get and keep a job, and it's helping workers make sound decisions about training.

In addition in the Department of Labor, we're in the second year of a demonstration program to help train out-of-school youths in some of the nation's poorest communities. Grantees work with public and private organizations in the broader community, such as schools, community colleges, community-based organizations, private-sector employers and the judicial system, to reduce the high school dropout rate in the area and to provide mentoring support, leadership development and other services that young people need to start career paths with earnings sufficient to support a family.

These are just two of many examples.

Q: What do you think it's going to take to close the wage gap between women and minorities-and their white male counterparts?
A: The good news is that the economy has created more than 12 million new jobs during the past four years, most of which have paid higher wages than the average for all jobs combined. But, unfortunately, the employment and wage gap between minorities and others didn't narrow much. There are several reasons for this.

First, not enough minority youths entered and completed remedial job training programs. And not enough of those who completed high school and skills-training programs entered better-than-average paying jobs, many of which were located in areas not easily accessible to minority youths. And sadly, on the eve of a new century, race and gender discrimination continue to block equal opportunity for minorities to get into better paying jobs.

In addition to providing training opportunities, I think it will take several things to close the wage gap. These include efforts to eliminate gender segregation of jobs and to promote fair pay practices, such as what we're trying to do with the Labor Department's Women's Bureau Fair Pay Clearinghouse. [The clearinghouse provides free information to working men and women about fair pay.] We also need to continue vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

It won't be easy to reverse a pattern of wage inequities in our society, but I'm determined to make a difference.

I have spent a substantial part of my career, including as the director of the Women's Bureau, fighting for equal employment opportunity for women and minorities. It won't be easy to reverse a pattern of wage inequities in our society, but I'm determined to make a difference.

Q: How likely is it that you'll be successful at mediating an agreement on compensation time?
A: The president is firmly in favor of giving employees a real choice between earning overtime pay or paid time off when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Giving employees more flexibility serves everyone's interests-but we must make sure we do it in a way that's good for both business and employees.

That's why the president insists upon a strong, responsible comp-time bill. Although most employers will be fair to their employees, a change in the law to allow comp time must include adequate safeguards to maintain and protect the rights of employees. I am hopeful that Congress will agree to and send to the president a bill he can sign, one that gives employees real choice, protects them from those employers who might abuse comp time and preserves workers' paychecks and the 40-hour week.

Q: What kind of new partnerships need to be formed in order to improve the quality of today's workforce?
A: Stated most simply, my vision for the new American workforce and the next American century can be achieved only by building strong partnerships with the business community; the labor movement; every level of government; and community, charitable, religious and professional organizations of all kinds.

Q: What role should unions play?
A: I grew up under the tutelage of the great labor leader A. Philip Randolph, so I understand the importance of the labor movement for working Americans, especially for workers, such as those in the garment and other low-wage industries, who are too often underrepresented and ignored.

We've seen throughout this nation's history that strong unions mean a higher standard of living, a more productive and involved workforce, safer jobs, better pensions and easier access to health care.

There's no doubt in my mind that today's unions are a critical solution to some of the most difficult economic problems facing our nation right now.

Q: What is the one thing that companies must change in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace?
A: They must invest more in human capital: increase the training opportunities and skill levels of all workers. This is no longer just a job for government. Government, employers, labor organizations and workers themselves need to keep pace with change and secure our position as the world's most highly skilled workforce.

Q: What do you feel was the previous labor secretary's legacy to you?
A: My predecessor and friend Robert Reich deserves the country's recognition and gratitude for his service, perhaps most significantly for being a "godfather" of the School-to-Work initiative.

This program recognizes that a good education must teach our young people how to live well and how to make a living. Today's economy puts a premium on skills. While professional jobs may account for approximately 20 percent of our workforce, 60 percent of American jobs are skilled, and only 20 percent are unskilled.

In 1997 it comes down to this: Knowing how to read and reason are as much practical as academic skills for at least four out of five workers.

Q: What mark would you like to make during your term of office?
A: I believe that by working together -leaders from labor, business, community organizations and government-we can deliver on a vision of an America that works for working people. We must keep faith with the social compact that built our prosperity: If working Americans learn new skills and work hard at their jobs, they'll enjoy better lives for themselves and a better chance for their children.

As secretary of labor, it is my honor and my obligation to work for an America in which every woman and man can find useful work with rising wages and for an America that offers opportunity for our youngest people and security for our older people. And I will work for an America where work is honored and justice is done.

Workforce, September 1997, Vol. 76, No. 9, pp.40-47.

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