US labor secretary: It’s time to invest in the American worker

US labor secretary watches a robot work

The state of the American worker is much discussed. With unionization efforts growing in some industries (Amazon, Starbucks), automation rapidly accelerating in others (warehouses and factories), and even the place of work — offices, remote or hybrid — among the hot topics, industries are eager to identify what the workforce of tomorrow will look like.

“I think companies need to invest more in their workforces, their potential workforces,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. “This is an opportunity to create a workforce that works for them.”

Walsh, speaking with Brian Heater, TechCrunch’s hardware editor, during the opening session of the media outlet’s TC Robotics 2022 conference, said that companies should be putting aside funding to train the workforce for the jobs of the future. But he didn’t absolve government of its responsibility.

“There is a role for government as well,” he said. “I think we need to look at where we invest in workforce development and ensure the money we are investing is in good programs, community colleges.”

In a 25-minute interview, Walsh touched on a number of modern workforce conditions, including unionization pushes across the country, and the role automation will play.

“If we don’t prepare workers right now … even if we don’t know what the technology is, we will see reductions across the workforce,” he said. “If we don’t start looking to the future as a government; if we don’t start looking to the future as industries … we will be seeing [a very different workforce in 10 years].”

Walsh pointed to a UPS (NYSE: UPS) facility in Louisville, Kentucky, that is loaded with automation as an example of how robotics will supplement rather than replace workers.

“They use a lot of technology there but still people are working,” he said.

UPS has more than 24,000 workers in the Louisville area.

Don’t fear technology

Walsh noted that companies, and employees, can’t be afraid of automation in the workplace, noting that in many cases, it simply changes the job. That is where companies and government need to step up, he said.

“How do we [ensure] people are trained for those types of jobs?” Walsh said. “Jobs are still going to be created in this space. There are opportunities for us to think differently and outside the box to take advantage of these [different jobs].”

He suggested companies need more outreach in schools, even at the grade school level, to start engaging with youth who may be good fits for future positions.

“Back in the day, people talked about woodworking and mechanical engineering,” Walsh said. “We need to change these trade schools to [incorporate more STEM education].

Doing this type of outreach will also help companies meet diversity goals, he added.

“Indirectly, you will likely connect with communities of color,” Walsh said. “Communities of color are traditionally left behind.”

Saying that government and business need to create “pathways,” Walsh noted that there is a “whole untapped workforce in America … that is hungry for opportunity.”

Unionization efforts

Asked about increased interest in unionization, Walsh said he believes there will be growth in unions moving forward, but the issue isn’t businesses versus unions as much as it is learning to work together to grow companies.

“Tech companies that unionize, once they get past the initial shock of the contract, I think there then has to be a pathway for [growing careers and the company],” he said. “They need to continue to grow and be successful. There has to be a partnership.”

Organization efforts occur for a reason, Walsh noted, citing poor pay or lack of appreciation as examples. Moving past these differences and finding solutions that work for everyone is key to business growth, he said.

“It’s about having those conversations,” Walsh said. “I tell all the sides: Have a dialogue. You need to work out your differences.”

Walsh also called for more U.S.-based manufacturing, noting that the Innovation Act would provide billions in funding to help do that, allowing businesses to add automation in factories and in ports, and help the U.S. become less dependent on foreign workers.

“We are so dependent on foreign imports in this country … we need to start thinking about … American workers building our products,” he said.

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