The Magnolia Mediator

Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman speaks out on the changing dynamics of the 21st century workplace

Economy?

The biggest difference is the “skilling” of American workers and what we have to do to be competitive as a nation going forward. Skills matter more than government. They’ve always mattered, but the fact of the matter is this is an [information-based] economy, and knowing means growing. Twenty years ago, the [wage] differential between someone who finished college compared to someone who only completed high school was about 35%. Today, that gap is 71% and getting even wider. And, as you look at the kind of jobs that we’re going to be creating in the future, the 10 fastest-growing jobs with the highest pay will all require a college degree.

How is this affecting African American workers?

We already see it in the African American community. The overall [unemployment] report is 4.1%; but if you are an African American college grad, it’s 2.5%.

With the workplace evolving into a place where we don’t have to be physically in an office anymore and there are increasing numbers of flex-time, part-time and temporary workers, how can employees protect themselves and their earning ability while keeping their benefits shored up?

We’re trying to have much more of an aggressive education campaign on these new work arrangements. We have to distinguish and not lump everything into part-time work or independent contractors to know that there are different kinds of work arrangements. Not all part-time work is bad. What we have to make the distinction between is those who are working part-time on an involuntary basis and want full-time work, vs. those who are working part-time on a voluntary basis.

We’ve got to look at what I call best practices in this area, because these are new ways of working, so that other employers can know of the innovation that is taking place. It can work in concert [with a company's bottom line], and the more productive and better the employee feels, the better it is for the company.
Enforcement is still very, very important. We cannot allow these new work arrangements to exploit workers. One of the things that can’t change as we go into this new millennium is the values that guided us in the 20th century.

One thing that has followed [women] into the new era is pay parity. Even in this [employment] report, it acknowledges that when skill or education are on par, there is a difference in pay, as is the case for African Americans. What can we do to close those gaps?

A lot of people assume because we [as women] are making progress, because it is a strong economy, and because we’re getting jobs in areas where we’ve never been employed before, that discrimination is not a factor in the workplace. That simply is not true. The fact of the matter is when you discount for experience, when you discount for education, when you look at workers in the same job, you find that the pay gap is still there.

That means we have to continue with strict enforcement of our antidiscrimination laws and must, in

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