It is perhaps fitting that an immigrant from Taiwan who once ran the Peace Corps and United Way is tasked with helping improve the labor skills of the U.S. workforce. As overseer of America's retirees and 150 million workers, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, 52, spoke with TIME's Eric Roston about the impending pension crisis, the growing skills gap and life as half of a Washington power couple.
YOU SAID RECENTLY THAT UNLESS CONGRESS REFORMS TRADITIONAL PENSION PLANS SOON, THE CONSEQUENCES COULD BE "VERY BAD." IF I'M A WORKER APPROACHING RETIREMENT AT A TEETERING COMPANY, WHAT DOES "VERY BAD" MEAN? If your retirement dreams hinge upon a pension plan that's underfunded, that threat is real. That threat is huge. We have $450 billion in underfunded plans, and $100 billion of that is with financially ailing companies.
BUT PENSION PLANS HAVE BEEN UNDERFUNDED FOR YEARS. WHY IS REFORM SUDDENLY GAINING STEAM? Something has to be done. We now have legislation moving on the Hill, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the passage of the pension bill. Congress gave itself two years to come up with pension-reform proposals. We're now at the end of that period.
WHY DO WORKERS SAY THERE IS A JOB SHORTAGE YET EMPLOYERS SAY THEY CAN'T FIND ENOUGH WORKERS? Our country is facing a skills gap. About 4.5 million new jobs have been created since May 2003. The majority require higher skills and higher educational levels, and that means these are relatively well-paying jobs. Our job is to make sure that we provide training and work with the private sector to train the workforce.
YOU WERE IN LITTLE ROCK, ARK., LAST MONTH ANNOUNCING A $5.9 MILLION GRANT TO TRAIN PEOPLE FOR WORK IN THE AUTO AND "ADVANCED MANUFACTURING" INDUSTRIES. WHO ELSE NEEDS HELP? The construction industry in Louisiana can only find 65% of the skilled labor they need. Health care's another one. We need about a million nurses and 3.4 million health-care workers in the next eight years. About 90% of the fastest-growing jobs these days require added training post--high school.
YOU WENT TO THE GULF COAST AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA. WHAT IS YOUR MOST VIVID MEMORY FROM THE TRIP? No matter how many times you've seen it or been involved, the poignancy of human suffering is beyond human comprehension. We went to visit the Astrodome in Houston. I found it very inspiring that at this evacuee center, 45,000 people showed up to help 23,000 evacuees. I played with a 4-year-old girl who seemed so oblivious in so many ways to what was happening around her. She had her grandfather, and she had her mother. So in times like that, we're grateful for the true treasures of life: family and safety.
AFTER KATRINA, DID YOU TRY TO LOBBY THE PRESIDENT AGAINST SUSPENDING THE DAVIS-BACON WAGE LAW, WHICH REQUIRES FEDERAL CONTRACTORS TO PAY THE LOCAL PREVAILING WAGE? The President and the Administration were most concerned with helping this region recover as quickly as possible. So the Administration wanted to cut through the red tape and the bureaucracy that would impede assistance to this devastated region.
SO WAS BUSH CAPITULATING TO CRITICS WHEN HE REINSTATED THE LAW IN LATE OCTOBER? No. Two months later, things had begun to improve, conditions had begun to get better, and it was seen that it was no longer necessary.