U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Presents a Path Forward for American Competitiveness at Center for American Progress


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Today, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker presented her vision of how American can remain competitive in the 21st century at the Center for American Progress’ economic policy conference, Creating Long-Term Value: Business Leaders on Shared Prosperity, Innovation and Investment.

Before a diverse group of private and public leaders, media and academics, Secretary Pritzker emphasized the importance of making key long-term investments in the foundation of America’s economic growth – investments in people through skills training and immigration reform; investments in innovation and entrepreneurship; and investments in the country’s physical and digital infrastructure.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Glenn for your kind introduction and for inviting me to address this distinguished cross-section of leaders in business, policy, government, academia, and labor.

I want to thank you, Neera, for hosting us.The work you and your team do, focusing on the most pressing policy questions in our country, is invaluable to all of us in government and, ultimately, to the American people.

Today’s conference examines another great challenge confronting America’s public and private sectors: the desire to create long-term value that produces shared prosperity in an economy that is changing rapidly.           

During my 27 years in the private sector, I regularly faced choices between decisions that would yield immediate wins for a business owner and decisions that could create lasting potential for the business itself and value for the shareholder.

As a CEO, I know that at times there can be a great deal of pressure to pursue short-term profits at the expense of long-term value. Executives confront a constant balancing act between the interests of different stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, activists, and the communities in which a business operates. And the job of the CEO is to keep that balance intact; to maintain a perspective that looks beyond the next quarterly earnings report, and to partner with board members, management, the workforce, and others that share a broader vision.

I believe you discussed these issues earlier today. So now, I want to focus on some observations from my short tenure here in Washington, where I have seen similar pressures on senior leaders in government – where short-term demands can often crowd out long-term thinking.

At times, I find myself and my Department stuck in a construct that does not support the kind of strategic investments needed to sustain our nation’s competitiveness. We face constant pressure to accomplish all of our goals in two, four, six, or, if you are lucky, eight-year windows, and we operate with the uncertainty of one-year budgets – and that is if we are fortunate enough to have a budget. In fact, budgets are often seen as tools in a political battle rather than what they truly should be: a reflection of our investment priorities –investments that serve the best interests of our government’s primary stakeholder: the American people.

When I came into office as Secretary of Commerce, our team developed a strategic plan that provides our Department with a clear mission: to grow trade and investment, to support innovation, to provide environmental intelligence, to unlock our data for the benefit of businesses and the public, and to deliver our services with operational excellence.

But, in the course of implementing this vision, we constantly run up against the short-sighted budget process. For example, we need to continually manage and modernize our system for gathering weather information, yet building, launching, and operating new satellites does not happen in 12-month increments. We want to produce the 2020 Census using modern technology and systems, which could save taxpayers $5 billion, yet we struggle to get the authority to spend the $500 million needed to realize those savings. We are in the process of renovating our building and attempting to create a 21st century work environment, yet, year-to-year, we are never sure whether we will have the capital to complete the job.

Frankly, I think we need a three-year budget cycle to really plan and execute these kinds of large-scale projects. I believe that our existing short-term planning leaves our nation at-risk of falling behind our competitors across the globe.           

Indeed, in my travels around the world as Secretary, I have seen how foreign governments are changing the way they think and invest. They are constructing new roads, light rail, airports, smart power grids, and more, with an eye to sharpening their competitive edge for the long term.

Over the course of more than two years in this job, I have thought a great deal about: how can our government alter the way we do business? What does the United States need to do to sustain and expand our global competitiveness? How can we step back from the short-term pressures and pursue a long-term strategy with a higher likelihood of spurring prosperity that is sustainable, inclusive, and broadly-shared?

The answers depend on all of us: those of us in business, in government, in labor, and in the non-profit sector. The answers depend on the choices we make, together, to strengthen our economy and to create lasting value for our workforce, for our communities, and for our companies.

The answers depend on whether we are willing to make key long-term investments: investments in our people, so we utilize 100 percent of our talent; investments in innovation and entrepreneurship, so we remain on the cutting edge; and investments in our infrastructure, so we can move our products and ideas at the speed required in the 21st century.

To create long-term value across our economy, America’s path forward must invest in our greatest resource: our people. Winning the war for talent is imperative if our country is to out-compete and lead the rest of the world.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Wilmington, Delaware, as part of Manufacturing Day, and I met with workers at M. Davis and Sons, which makes industrial equipment for firms like Phillips 66 and DuPont. Some of the employees told me they knew as early as 7th grade that their interests lay in engineering or manufacturing, and that the traditional course of high school to college to a career might not suit them. These workers chose to go to technical high schools and pursue additional skills at community colleges, giving them the credentials to participate in apprenticeships at M. Davis, earn certification as electricians, plumbers, or welders, and receive a paycheck at the same time.

Today, they have good careers with incomes that allow them to own their homes and provide for their families – all with no college debt. The lesson here is that there is no single, uniform route to a successful career.

In business, labor, and government, we must work together to offer Americans a more diverse menu of training options needed to compete in the 21st century economy. We need to offer more career and technical education programs that start in middle and high school. We need to partner with employers and prepare more students for in-demand jobs in their communities. We need a nimble training system that allows workers to gain additional, industry-recognized credentials over an extended period of time.

We need to build off of programs like the one Governor Markell has adopted in Delaware, the Pathways to Prosperity, which enables students to transition smoothly through high school, into post-secondary education, and onto family-supporting careers. This initiative has been launched in 11 states and should be a model for our entire nation – because it creates a virtuous cycle that benefits individuals who need access to jobs and employers who need access to talent.           

At the Commerce Department, we have taken a lead role on skills development through our “Skills for Business” initiative. We work closely with our partners in the Administration, academia, non-profits, and the private sector to better align our worker education and training programs with the jobs in our communities.

As part of this effort, we are focused on an issue long championed by CAP: investments in apprenticeships. We are working with the Departments of Labor and Education to achieve President Obama’s goal of doubling the number of registered apprenticeships by 2020. And we, at the Commerce Department, are partnering with leading foundations and Case Western Reserve University on the first-ever U.S. study analyzing the return on investment for employers who utilize apprenticeships.

In addition, just as we are preparing students for jobs in evolving sectors like manufacturing, we must do the same in emerging fields like cybersecurity – a fast-growing sector with more than 230,000 openings across the country. These steps are just part of our strategy to invest in our workforce, to meet the demands of our businesses, and to create lasting value for our middle class and our economy.

To secure our long-term competitiveness, our path forward must ensure that America continues to be a place where anyone can contribute their ideas and abilities to our prosperity .The United States has been built, strengthened, and sustained by generation after generation of immigrants. This remains true today.

Advancing permanent, comprehensive immigration reform is not just a moral obligation; it is a matter of economic necessity. If we do not welcome the best and brightest to our shores, if we do not attract leading minds, workers, and innovators to our campuses and communities—put simply, we will be left behind. To move forward on our path to reform, we must first move our nation past common misperceptions about immigration and its impact on our businesses and economy.

For starters, let’s consider the demographic realities. Despite what some in the media or running for president claim, unauthorized immigration has remained stable over the past half-decade. Overall migration from Mexico has declined – period. Total arrivals from China, India, and elsewhere in Asia are on the rise. Today, the average unauthorized family has been here for more than a decade and is integrated into our society.

Next, let’s consider the economic realities. Immigrants and their children play an essential role in sustaining the growth and competitiveness of our workforce. As CAP’s research has found, unauthorized immigrants are already living and working in our nation.

Bringing them off of the economic sidelines would ultimately translate into higher wages for all Americans, higher tax revenues for the federal treasury, and more jobs added throughout our communities.  Allowing them to fully participate in our economy would also provide these families with a sense of dignity, a sense of belonging, a sense that they, too, can pursue and realize the American dream.

Finally, let’s consider the impact on our competitiveness. Right now, there are over 1.1 million foreign students studying in our universities. Nationally, these potential immigrants make up over 40 percent of Master’s or PhD candidates in STEM fields – expertise we desperately need. Yet once we train many of these talented men and women, more often than not, we force them to leave.

This makes no sense! We should not educate these young people then require them to return home; we should staple a green card to their diplomas when they graduate. We cannot afford to lose students who may invent the next Google, eBay, IBM, or Home Depot – all started by immigrants or their children.

We cannot afford to lose the DREAMers who work in our businesses, serve in our military and study on our college campuses; the young people who may be future teachers, police officers, or public servants; the youth who are American in every way – except on paper.

We must ensure that the men and women who move here, who study here, who bring their skills here, and who start families and businesses here, are welcome to stay here in the United States of America. Our values, our history, and the demands of our economy dictate that we enact comprehensive immigration reform without further delay.

To sustain our long-term competitiveness, our path forward requires us to nourish and support our innovators and entrepreneurs. Between one-third and one-half of economic growth in the United States can be attributed technological and scientific innovation. And since our nation’s founding, Americans have applied their ingenuity to develop great ideas into great businesses right here in the United States.

From Ben Franklin harnessing the power of electricity, to Steve Jobs revolutionizing the personal computer, to the founders of Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB defining the sharing economy, innovators have driven our prosperity in every generation. The same is true today. And our entrepreneurs must be able to bring their ideas from lab to market, access needed capital, and sell their products in markets around the world.

To meet this challenge, the Department of Commerce serves as “America’s Innovation Agency.” We issue patents to protect intellectual property.  We offer start-ups the tools to think global from day one.  We deploy entrepreneurship ambassadors to mentor and inspire young innovators at home and abroad.

We work with communities to develop comprehensive economic development strategies that maximize their strengths and attract manufacturers to their markets. And we support advanced manufacturing with the creation of institutes focused on pre-competitive research in new technologies like 3D printing, photonics, digital design, and lightweight metals.

Through our Department’s efforts to spur innovation, we aim to set the conditions that allow any American to start and grow a business. This task is essential to our long-term prosperity – because when entrepreneurs have the chance to pursue their dreams, they form leading firms; they enhance our competitiveness; and they create jobs here at home.

Along with more strategic skills training, smarter immigration policy, and stronger support for innovation, our path forward must ensure our people, goods, and ideas can move at the rapid pace of the 21st century.

Investments in our infrastructure are investments in long-term value – because our businesses cannot compete, our families cannot succeed, and our economy cannot grow without a strong, sturdy foundation. At a time when technological innovation and economic growth go hand-in-hand, our digital infrastructure is central to our competitiveness.

Recognizing this fact, the Obama Administration has invested in more than 113,000 miles of broadband nationwide. President Obama and his team rolled out ConnectEd, an initiative to connect 99 percent of students to the digital age through next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries. Despite this progress, we still have a digital divide in this nation.  Over 20 percent of homes in the United States still do not have high-speed internet, placing our communities at a disadvantage.

Last month, the White House released a report from the Broadband Opportunity Council, which I co-chair. The report described concrete steps that more than 20 federal agencies will take over the next 18 months to eliminate barriers and promote broadband investment and adoption.

With these actions and more to come, we can ensure that America’s path forward is built on a digitally-connected foundation designed to accommodate the pace of change in today’s global economy. At the same time, our physical infrastructure has long suffered from under-investment. That short-sighted approach only serves to hamstring our economic growth and hamper our competitiveness.

Right now, we need legislation that provides adequate long-term funding of our infrastructure to address our immediate maintenance backlogs, support needed expansions, and alleviate congestion for commuters.  We need a predictable, consistent, stable stream of funding to allow state and local governments to plan and execute urgent projects.

We need to make it clear that in the United States of America, we cannot fund our infrastructure three months at a time, as we have over the past decade. We must make long-term investments in our roads and bridges, our rail lines, our ports and airports, and our broadband networks.

As I said when I began: we, as leaders, have to make choices. We have to choose to focus on long-term success, even if the short-term course seems easier and more expedient. We have to choose to make smart investments that reflect our priorities for the long term and our vision for the future.

In government, that means we have to choose a budget that creates lasting value for our economy. After passing another continuing resolution, Congress will soon face this choice once again: Will they pass a responsible budget that invests in our entrepreneurs, our economy, our families, our military readiness, our schools, and our infrastructure – in the very foundation of our competitiveness? Or will they leave the so-called “sequester” in place, which would automatically force short-sighted cuts to investments and services, regardless of their effect on our economic or national security?

Reducing investments for short-term gain is no way to run a business when you are trying to grow and compete, and playing politics with our budget is no way to run our government when our global competiveness is at stake.

I know the choice I would make.  I know the choice President Obama believes is right for our future. I know the leaders at CAP and in this room want a path forward that spurs lasting growth for our economy; that promotes economic security for our families and our companies; and that ensures the economic prosperity of all Americans.

Moving forward, let’s work together to make the right long-term choices for our country – choices that will create value for our communities; choices that will sustain U.S. competitiveness around the world; choices that will keep America open for business. Thank you for inviting me here today.

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Last updated: 2015-10-21 18:54

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