Secretary Perez: Climbing the staircase to the middle class

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U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez used a highway metaphor to illustrate the importance of investments in human infrastructure and how those can help grow the middle class.

“What we need to do now is redouble our efforts and invest in that human capital infrastructure,” Perez said. “We need that skills super highway of the 21st century to make sure that we can compete in the 21st century global economy.

“The destination for everyone is the middle class,” he said.

Perez addressed more than 150 members and guests of the Greater Baltimore Committee at the inaugural “Newsmaker” breakfast series on March 16 at the Renaissance Hotel in Baltimore.

Perez, a former secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, discussed workforce development issues from the federal perspective. The topic was: “Middle Class Economics: Investing in Opportunity for American Workers and Employers.”

He spoke about the multiple pathways to success, which for some people is attained by completing courses at community college.

“You don’t need a four-year degree to punch your ticket to the middle class,” Perez said. “High school is not enough for so many people. That is why we continue to invest in community colleges and why we continue to invest in bold ideas.”

Perez, who called community college the “secret sauce,” also highlighted the value of apprenticeships.

“Apprenticeship is a proven route to the middle class,” Perez said. “I have seen nationally that apprenticeship works, I have seen internationally that apprenticeship works. We need to build an on ramp on our skills superhighway for apprenticeships. This is indeed the other college.”

“On ramps” are also needed for veterans, immigrants, youths, people with disabilities and criminal records, Perez said.

He also spoke about the need to have partnerships at scale and the vital importance of leadership.

“When we work together we can get a lot done,” Perez said. “The thing I love about Maryland is we understand that creating a good business climate involves investing in infrastructure –human capital infrastructure, educational infrastructure, physical infrastructure. These are the keys to long-term success.”

One example of leadership Perez touted is that the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is cultivating partnerships with businesses and a pipeline of minority scientists and engineers.

He also pointed to the Port of Baltimore as a regional asset and the importance of investing in it, particularly as Greater Baltimore competes with cities in other countries that also have ports.

“We are under investing, east and west, in our port infrastructure and we do that at our peril,” he said.

Perez also addressed the need to invest in mass transit and advocate for high speed rail.

“Mass transit will provide those opportunities for tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not the Purple Line versus the Red Line. It should be the Purple Line and the Red Line.”

Perez asked the business leaders to consider the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore being connected by high-speed rail.

“That is not a pipe dream,” he said. “That is a reality if we simply continue our relentlessness, if we continue to have our focus on the long-term, I think we can do this. Maryland works best when we make full use of all of our assets. We have bold leadership here in the business community. We have folks who understand that ‘we’ is the key to success.”

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said Secretary Perez underscored the importance of business leaders and elected officials working together as a key to Maryland’s success.

“It is vitally important that business and government leaders partner to develop policies that are beneficial for job growth,” Fry said. “This will advance the state’s competitive business environment and enable us to maximize our potential.”

This is the third time in three years that GBC members have been addressed by a member of President Obama’s cabinet.

On March 9, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jacob L. Lew and Senator Ben Cardin visited the GBC offices and addressed GBC member business executives on a breadth of economic and tax reform topics following the Secretary’s tour of Ellicott Dredges, LLC in Baltimore.

In May 2012, then-U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner addressed more than 250 invited members of the Greater Baltimore Committee and participated in a wide-ranging conversation on the state of the economy.

Read about the secretary’s Four Principles of America’s Skills Transformation.

View photos from the event here.

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