Q&A: Labor Secretary Perez on how to produce better-paying jobs

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez speaks to business and community leaders at a Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce event in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 2014.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez speaks to business and community leaders at a Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce event in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 2014.

(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

At the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce this week, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez kicked off a cross-country, pre-Labor Day tour to champion higher minimum wages, higher-wage jobs and other causes in talks with employers, workers and local leaders.

Perez told the chamber audience at a luncheon Monday that the nation faced two major challenges -- a stagnation in wage growth and the increase in long-term unemployed workers. He also noted the decline in the unemployment rate and improving prospects for skilled manufacturing.

Before taking his post a year ago, Perez was the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, where he led investigations into the death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and alleged police misconduct in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.


He also spoke with Times reporters and editors. Here is an edited version of that interview:

Why is there so much attention on pay for entry-level jobs as opposed to moving workers into better jobs?

All of the billion dollars we’ve been giving out is designed to strengthen the ladders of opportunity to the middle class. The CareerConnect grant is all about training people in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields so people don’t graduate from high school and go right to fast food.

They go out of high school with the skills that enable them to maybe go to work at Siemens and move up the ladder there or maybe get their four-year degree or associate’s degree. It’s all about building well-paying jobs.

At the same time, I’m proud of the work we’re doing on minimum wage. You can’t live on $7.25 an hour, and that’s a fact.

So what’s next on that front?The best approach is to have a federal floor and have that floor be a floor of decency -- $7.25 is not a floor of decency. And then state and local governments should have the authority to do what they think is most responsive to local needs.


You look at Washington state, which has had the highest minimum wage in the country for 15 years, and their tipped workers are on par, just like California.

If the opponents of an increase in the minimum wage were correct, then every time you fly to Seattle, you’ve got to bring a bagged lunch because there shouldn’t be any restaurants because they should have all have gone out of business as a result of raising the minimum wage.

But if you look at their numbers on job creation, they have been well above the national average consistently over the years.

Where are the jobs going, who’s creating them and where are the needs?

Let’s take the manufacturing sector, for instance. The difference between Buffalo, N.Y., in the ‘70s and ‘80s is that you had the 20,000-person Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel [plants], and a 10th-grade education bought you a ticket to the middle class.

The growth we’re seeing in manufacturing today is real and it’s sustainable, and it will be here for decades to come. The difference now is that a 10th-grade education isn’t going to be sufficient. You go to the assembly line at Siemens in North Carolina, and you see people walking around with iPads. You go to the assembly line in Louisville, Ky., at the Ford plant, and every person on that assembly line has the ability to shut the line down.


In today’s advanced manufacturing, you’re not going to get the 20,000-person plant, so we’ve got to be really smart about clustering and understanding what the needs are. You don’t need a college degree to work at Siemens, but you need proficiency with a computer, you need high school plus.

Many economists in Southern California, though, say that manufacturing jobs are gone and they’re not coming back.

I tend to disagree with that. I heard that in Youngstown; I heard that in Detroit. And then I see what’s happening now. I see a rebirth. It’s not a rebirth of the scale that we saw in the early 20th century. But the world of advanced manufacturing is a world of great potential for U.S.-based manufacturers -- and I see no reason why Los Angeles can’t grow.

In almost every other respect, when I look at the numbers and I break down the numbers in L.A., it pretty much mirrors what I see nationally. For instance, business and professional services are the biggest job growth in the last year, and that’s one of the biggest growth areas in Los Angeles. Hospitality has been a big growth area, and similarly in Los Angeles.

I don’t know the answer [about why L.A.’s manufacturing isn’t growing]. It would be rank speculation as to why L.A. hasn’t seen the same benefits that I see elsewhere. I just have every reason to believe that this is something that can be turned around.

On efforts to employ those coming out of prison, are the Labor and the Justice departments spending money on training programs or funding employers’ efforts to hire ex-offenders?


It goes to entities that have a demonstrated expertise in the placement of ex-offenders, in developing effective programs.

For instance, when I was with the [U.S.] attorney general, we were at the county jail in Montgomery County, Md. We put an American jobs center in the jail because the county jails are where the majority of people actually come out of prison across the country.

We’re going to award grants in a competitive process to 10 city or county jails over the next year to replicate that.

It’s a smart business decision. People in the skilled trades, where there are major shortages, they don’t care if you have a record. They care if you’re going to show up and be good, and if you have the talent.

Does the administration have a position on the effort to remove questions about past convictions from job applications?

I don’t know if we’ve articulated a formal position. I support ban-the-box movements. Baltimore city has a ban the box. I know [Los Angeles] Mayor [Eric] Garcetti supports it as well.


I think they’ve been proven to be very effective. And I think opponents sometimes mischaracterize those provisions and say, ‘Oh, well, the child care center has to hire a pedophile.’ Of course it doesn’t require that to happen. But what does happen is people can get through the process and be considered.

Baltimore city has it, and [Johns] Hopkins [University] is the most prolific employer in Maryland, not to mention Baltimore city. And it has not gotten in the way at all. What it has done, is it has opened up opportunities for folks who might not have otherwise been considered. I think it’s a common-sense measure that doesn’t unduly tie the hands of employers.

Vocational or technical education is being raised more regularly as an alternative to college. Still, high schools have pushed college prep curricula. Is there a disconnect between the Department of Labor and the Department of Education?

The thing I always tell parents and school superintendents when we talk about career and technical education is that it gets you on the higher education superhighway.

So when that mom says, ‘My kid isn’t going to go into one of these programs; he’s going to get a college degree,’ well, when you complete an apprenticeship program, you are 75% of your way to an associate’s degree and it’s a stackable credential.

There are really good jobs out there, folks making on average something like $25 an hour. That’s pretty good money for someone who’s 21, 22 years old and coming out of a program.


We’ve got to understand as we prepare today and tomorrow’s workforce that we’ve got to start at pre-kindergarten, but we’ve also got to recognize that there are millions of people for whom the K-12 system is way in the rear-view mirror.

For some people, college is the answer, and for other people, there are other answers that are equally rewarding.

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