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Interview: Top US Labor Official Talks Job Creation, TPP

Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu during a VOA interview, Washington, June 22, 2016.
Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu during a VOA interview, Washington, June 22, 2016.

In the midst of a presidential campaign season where sustained economic recovery, job creation and trade have returned to the fore, Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu talked with VOA's Adrianna Zhang about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and outlook on job creation efforts. Lu said more needs to be done despite recent gains.

VOA: Job creation has been a central talking point throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Can you talk a bit about what your department has been doing to create more jobs?

CL: I think it's important to look at the economic recovery as a whole. When the president came into office in January 2009, we were in the middle of the greatest recession in our lifetime. Since that period of time, because of the actions that the president took, we've now had 75 consecutive months of job growth. We've created 14.5 million jobs. So we are proud of our economic record, but there's probably more that needs to be done. And the Department of Labor plays a central role in helping to train people for jobs and helping them get those jobs.

VOA: But some recent jobs data was disappointing. In May, we only added 38,000 jobs, which is a sharp slowdown. Is this a worrying sign?

CL: We never read too much into one month of jobs numbers, whether the numbers are very good or the numbers are disappointing, as they were last month.

I think there are a couple of pieces of data to put into context. I think the 38,000 jobs we created last month also need to be seen in the light of the fact that we were in the middle of a major strike going on at that period of time involving Verizon and the Communications Workers of America.

It's estimated that [that strike] cut job growth by about 35,000 jobs, so when you add that back in, we are about 80,000 jobs created, and that's basically the number of jobs we needed to keep pace with increasing population.

I think we also look more broadly at some of the other economic indicators, whether it's retail spending, whether it's initial unemployment insurance claims, and that paints, frankly, a more positive picture about where the economy is.

But again, we don't read too much into one month's numbers whether they are good or bad. But obviously we have much more to do to keep this recovery going. And the president has talked about the importance of more infrastructure spending, about the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and about doing more to train Americans for jobs in the 21st century.

VOA: What can we expect for the next month or the month after?

CL: I don't make predictions about where the unemployment or the employment numbers are. All I know is that it's important for us to take sensible policies to keep this recovery going, and the president has put out a list of items that can keep this economy going. Unfortunately, Congress has not backed him up on those proposals.

VOA: What can be done to improve things?

CL: There are a couple of important things. We know, for instance, one way to create good paying jobs is to put more money in infrastructure spending. That's roads and bridges. Those are good paying jobs in the construction industry. It also spurs more jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Traditionally, in this country, roads and bridges have been a bipartisan issue; we did get an infrastructure bill passed last year, but we need to put much more money into it. It's not only good for creating jobs, but, frankly, commerce is improved in this country when we have roads that don't have potholes in them, when we have bridges that are sustainable, when we have mass transit and airports that run. We have under-invested in infrastructure for a long period of time.

Another tangible way that we keep this recovery going is by investing in training and improving the skills of American workers. When the secretary and I travel around the country, I'm always talking to employers who tell me that they're ready to hire people, but they can't find the skilled workers that they need. And I talk to job seekers who tell me that [they] want that job, but [that they] don't have the skills necessary. It's one of the opportunities — challenges, frankly — we have at the Department of Labor.

We often say that we are a little bit like We help to connect employers to job seekers, and one of the ways we do that is by improving the skills of the job seekers.

VOA: Are new jobs as good as the ones people lost?

CL: It's hard to say on an individual basis what jobs people have gained, what jobs people have lost. What we know is that during the economic recoveries we have had for the last six years, the initial jobs that we created tended to be more lower-wage jobs.

As the recovery has gone on, we've had more middle-waged jobs. But overall, we need to do more not only creating jobs, but gaining paying jobs that allow people to raise families, send their kids to college, save for retirement. And it's one of the reasons why we are putting so much emphasis here on improving the skills of the workers, because it's not enough just to help workers get minimum wage jobs. We want to help them rise into the middle class. That's going to require them to have the skills they need for good-paying jobs, whether it's in health care, IT, education or advanced manufacturing. These are good-paying jobs that help Americans live middle-class lives.

VOA: But isn't it more probable that laid-off steelworkers are getting jobs as burger-flippers?

CL: ... What is clear is that over the last 20 or 30 years, manufacturing in this country has gone down. A lot of the traditional industries in this country have decreased because of foreign competition.

But we've also in this country had a remarkable transition to a service economy and really wonderful high paying jobs in IT, for instance. That is an industry that didn't exist 20 or 30 years ago. But what's key is to ensure that that you know steelworkers that have been laid off get the job training they need so that they can compete for those good-paying jobs. That's one of the things that we at the Department of Labor focus on.

VOA: Trade deals such as TPP are often touted as job-creating deals. How will TPP help the United States and the other countries with job creation?

CL: The United States is a country that relies on exports. Right now there are 18,000 taxes put on other countries — TPP countries — on the products that we want to sell overseas. So what TPP does is reduce or eliminate these tariffs, and that will make it easier for U.S. companies to sell their goods overseas. It is estimated by the year 2030 there will be over 3 billion middle-class consumers — or [people] interested in buying U.S. products — in Asia. That's good for U.S. companies. That’s certainly good for U.S. workers as well.

VOA: But does TPP have a prayer of getting passed? Presidential candidates in both parties are trashing it as a job killer, and many voters appear to be buying it.

CL: We're obviously in the middle of the presidential election season and, you know, a lot of things get said during campaigns. What I'm confident [about] is that trade has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. The president strongly supports it. The leaders in the House and Senate on the Republican side support it as well. And we are optimistic that that TPP can get done before the end of the year.

VOA: When presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) say large-scale free trade deals kill jobs, why do you think so many voters believe them?

CL: Well, I'm not here to talk about the presidential election. But what I can tell you is the fact [that] TPP is a great opportunity for U.S. companies that sell products overseas, and that jobs that rely on selling, on exports, traditionally pay higher than those that don't involve exports. You know, some of the fastest-growing states in the United States, Washington State being a great example, are major overseas exporters.

This is a wonderful opportunity for us to sell everything from cars to agriculture and consumer products to three billion consumers in Asia, and we ought to take advantage of that.

VOA: Do free trade agreements get too much blame for lost manufacturing jobs? You know we blame countries like China and Vietnam for stealing our jobs with cheap labor. But China actually is also losing jobs in industries like manufacturing.

CL: I am acutely aware of the economic distress that is happening in many parts of this country. And you know, there are instances where you can point to trade deals in the past that have led to jobs going overseas.

More broadly, there's been a globalization where, you know, obviously companies go to the places where there's the cheaper labor, where there's access to the raw materials that they need.

What I'm encouraged by are a number of U.S. companies that are bringing jobs back from other countries because they realize that the U.S. worker is the best worker in the entire world, that there is access to raw materials you need here, that there is the transportation of goods that is easier when you're selling to U.S. consumers, that making the product here is often more cost-efficient. So I'm encouraged by the number of companies that are bringing their products back from overseas.

VOA: Do you think we are actually losing jobs to automation and high-tech innovation?

CL: If you look at over the last 100 years, people have always had concerns, rightfully so, about what automation will do to the American worker, whether it was the auto assembly plants of Henry Ford in the early 1900s, whether it’s the advent of the computer in the 1960's or 70's, whether was the rise of the Internet over the last 10 or 20 years. Every time there has been a new technology, people have feared that this will be the end of workers. That's never been the case. But what it does speak to is that you need a different set of skills to compete in the 21st century economy. And those skills need to be refreshed throughout somebody’s lifetime.

There was a period of time where you could graduate from high school or college, and whatever skills you had at that period of time was what you would need to remain competitive in the workforce for the rest of your life. That’s just not the way it is now. You know, I think about myself.

I graduated from college and law school when there was no Internet. So, I don't know what the job market of 20 or 30 years from now will be, but I realize that in order to be competitive, we always need to be in this mind frame of lifelong learning and always be training for the jobs of tomorrow. That's one of the highest priorities we have here at the Department of Labor.

VOA: How can the Department of Labor help encourage innovation, in terms of preparing laid-off workers to acquire skills that accommodate future jobs?

CL: One of the best secrets of our workforce system right now is community colleges. Community colleges have the ability to be very flexible to cater their training programs to ensure that whatever the job — whether in healthcare, IT, manufacturing — if there's a skill that an employer needs and it's a skill that job seeker lacks, the community colleges can help provide that training.

One of the other amazing things right now that we have is the Internet. You can take an online course to help you become a coder that can get you a great-paying job. And so, what we need to do is understand that the way that you train workers is not the traditional - you know, to go take a course — there are other alternative ways of doing it. The apprenticeships are a wonderful example.

In Germany and Switzerland they have a centuries-old system of apprenticeships. When you go and you work on the job, you get an education, but you spend time with that actual employer learning how to do the job while you're working. We're trying to import that to the United States right now. The president has called for doubling the number of apprenticeships. We last year put $150 million into apprenticeships; this year we're putting $99 million into apprenticeships. And this is not just apprenticeships to be electricians and plumbers and pipefitters, which are wonderful jobs, but we have a very robust system of apprenticeships in areas like IT, like advanced manufacturing, health care, cyber, white-collar professions. We're trying to tailor the training systems to the needs of the job seekers and the needs of the employers.

VOA: And yet Republicans would say that we should get rid of such programs that require taxpayer funding.

CL: We don't do tax policy here. But I will tell you about regulations; that the regulations that we have down here at the Department of Labor have been thoughtful. They've been the result of extensive public comment. And they’ve been aimed at how we can best protect workers and ensure that we are updating some of the important regulatory oversights of the past decades.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin service.