America's dynamic workforce

Those who hoped that the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings would collapse the American economy have been greatly disappointed. Five-years after those horrific attacks, America’s economy is strong and growing — thanks to the strength, resiliency and competitiveness of our nation's economy and our workforce.

The national unemployment rate (4.7 percent in August) is a full one percent lower than the 5.7 percent average for the decade of the 1990s. Our economy has generated job growth for 36 months straight, with more than 5.7 million net new jobs created since August 2003. In 2005, real hourly earnings were 1.7 percent higher than in 2000, compared to a 1.6 percent decline in real earnings between 1990 and 1995.

Moreover, the average amount of total compensation in 2005 was 7 percent higher than in 2000. Workers know that overall compensation is what really counts because it includes all of the benefits that workers cherish, including health care coverage, paid time off and retirement benefits.

After-tax income, per capita, has gone up by 8.9 percent since the beginning of President George W. Bush’s administration. That means more money in the pockets of working men and women. 

Specifically, it means that the average American brings home over $2,000 more each year than they did in January 2001. That’s real (inflation-adjusted) money that is going to be spent, saved or invested by the people who earned it. Despite the unprecedented challenges that our country has faced over the past five years, the president's policies have created the climate for the steady, consistent growth that is the envy of other major industrialized nations.

Germany and France, for example, have unemployment rates nearly double that of the U.S. and long-term unemployment rates that are nearly three times as high. The median length of unemployment in Germany is more than 52 weeks, compared with 8.9 weeks for Americans. And in Europe, gasoline prices are more than $6 per gallon!  A snapshot of our nation's economy and workforce are included in a newly released Department of Labor publication entitled America’s Dynamic Workforce.

Today, America competes in a worldwide economy. Some countries are vying with each other to attract the lowest-skilled, lowest-paid jobs. That's not where America’s economic future lies. Our country must attract and create the highest-skilled, highest-paid jobs in the world for America’s workers.

There are millions of new jobs in industries that did not exist a generation ago. These industries provide high-value, high-paying jobs and demand workers with higher skills and more education. This does not necessarily mean a 4-year college degree, but it does mean that additional specialized training will become the norm for the American worker.

For workers supporting families, making house and car payments and contributing to their retirement, affording the cost of continuing education can seem a stretch. That’s why this administration strives to make effective investments in worthwhile education and training programs that prepare workers for jobs. And that’s why this administration advocates innovative ways for workers to access career development opportunities.

The president’s Career Advancement Accounts proposal would empower eligible workers with up to $3,000 to purchase the education and training that suits them best. Career Advancement Accounts would give many workers a chance to take the next step up the career ladder, increasing the opportunity for them to achieve their American dream. Career Advancement Accounts are Pell grants for workers.

America’s greatest economic strengths are our workforce and an economic system that empowers the individual and creates limitless opportunities to build better lives. The challenge is to ensure that our nation's workers have access to the education and skills training they need to thrive and remain competitive in the 21st century economy. With the right tools and skills, American workers can and will out-compete anyone in the world.

Chao is the U.S. Secretary of Labor. For a copy of the America’s Dynamic Workforce publication go to www.dol.gov.

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