Penny Pritzker is 38th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce. An accomplished and renowned civic and business leader, Ms. Pritzker holds more than 25 years of experience in the real estate, hospitality, senior living, and financial services industries. Before her role leading the Commerce Department, Ms. Pritzker was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Council for Jobs and Competitiveness.
Foundation: What spurred your involvement in education and how have your previous skills initiatives informed your work as Secretary of Commerce?
Pritzker: My parents taught me that education is the key to a productive life, making a contribution to my community, and maximizing potential. They believed— and I believe—that knowledge and experience are the great equalizers and that every child should have access to a good education and training that will put them on a path to greater opportunity. As a leader in my community, and now at the federal level, I feel a strong responsibility to ensure that all of our children have the opportunity to benefit from a quality educational experience so they improve their chances to succeed.
When I was in Chicago, I served on the public school board, working to improve the experience we offered the 400,000 children in the system with a longer school day and longer school year. In addition, I helped create Skills for America’s Future, and later, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. Both of these programs work directly with employers and training organizations to help prepare our workforce with in-demand skills. This type of job- driven training is something that I am passionate about expanding in my role as Secretary of Commerce. Ensuring our young people have the tools and training they need to succeed in the 21st century economy is critical not only for their individual futures but also for our nation’s overall competitiveness. That is why I am very proud that we have made skills development a top priority at the Department of Commerce for the very first time.
In the development of Skills for America’s Future, we always knew that businesses must take a leadership role in these efforts because they have the best insight into our communities’ job needs. That philosophy has carried through to our work on skills development at the federal level. With our direct line to businesses all over the country, the Department of Commerce is particularly well-positioned to lead in this area and to support the sharing and replication of best practices.
Foundation: How important is education to growing American economic competitiveness?
Pritzker: Since taking office more than a year ago, I have spoken to more than 1,200 business leaders from across the country, including one-third of the Fortune 500 CEOs. A top concern they all shared is the challenge they face in finding qualified workers to fill available jobs. We know that our long-term competitiveness requires a workforce equipped with the skills businesses need.
It is absolutely imperative that we use all of the tools in our toolbox to educate and prepare our workforce for 21st century jobs. We are specifically focused on encouraging employer partnerships with community colleges, creating apprenticeship programs, and expanding the availability of industry-recognized, portable credentials in workforce training. We know, for example, that 87% of workers who complete apprenticeships get good jobs and will make $300,000 more over their lifetime than their peers. This type of educational experience has transformative potential.
The bottom line is that there is not a one-size-fits-all model when it comes to skills development, and we have to make sure that we are training our workforce according to what employers are actually looking for in their sector.
Foundation: Given today’s economy, which industries or occupations would you advise students to consider when selecting a major?
Pritzker: One of the greatest areas of opportunity we are seeing across America today is in manufacturing. The fact is that U.S. manufacturing has really turned a corner. For the first time in more than 10 years, both manufacturing output and employment are growing. Since the end
of the recession, output has increased 38% and the manufacturing sector has created more than 640,000 quality jobs. Through efforts like Manufacturing Day— which is coming up on October 3—manufacturers around the country are opening their doors to a class, a grade, or a school to help expose our young people to what a career in manufacturing holds.
Foundation: What should the role of commerce agencies be when it comes to education reform?
Pritzker: I think the work we are doing in the area of skills development is very exciting. It is the first time that the Departments of Commerce and Labor, as well as the Department of Education, have come together with local governments and providers to find solutions that make our workforce and training system more job-driven, integrated, and effective. Our agencies are focused on breaking down silos between businesses, training organizations, academic institutions, and governments to create a collaborative training ecosystem that supports the needs of our workers and our businesses.
In addition to our role as a convener, the federal government is changing the way it invests in workforce development. Through our grants, we are encouraging employers to partner with community colleges, to engage with workforce intermediaries targeting the long-term unemployed, to support and develop apprenticeship programs, and to emphasize the value of industry-recognized, portable credentials in their training and hiring. At the federal level, we are focused on scaling the models that work. This year, the Obama Administration will award $500 million in federal funding to community colleges that partner with individual companies and national industry associations to expand our job-driven training programs and will invest $100 million in an apprenticeships grant competition, targeted at providing support for programs in new areas, including advanced manufacturing, IT, and healthcare.
Pritzker: There is no question that educators and industry must be working hand-in-hand to develop a pipeline of skilled workers. I believe we can best serve America’s workforce and America’s businesses by building stronger partnerships across all stakeholder groups at the local, regional, and national levels, which will strengthen the ecosystems of training that our workers need to compete in the years ahead.
Foundation: How can education and workforce systems better support entrepreneurship?
Pritzker: We know that entrepreneurs are vital to the American economy. In addition to better training and equipping our workers to compete and succeed in the global economy, we must support those with the inclination to start their own business and provide them the tools needed to realize the dream of developing new products and services. At the Department of Commerce, our Economic Development Administration (EDA) has actively supported and helped fund the creation and continuation of entrepreneurship accelerators and incubators from Nashville, Tennessee to Scottsdale, Arizona. These accelerators and incubators are helping American entrepreneurs turn their innovative ideas into viable businesses.
As someone who has started five companies, I am a true believer in the power of entrepreneurship. I am also very proud to serve as the Obama Administration’s point person on entrepreneurship. Earlier this year, President Obama and I launched an initiative called the Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE), which I am proud to chair. PAGE is a partnership between U.S. government agencies and 11 outstanding American entrepreneurs, which aims to inspire entrepreneurship in the United States and around the world.
Research indicates that new and young companies are responsible for virtually all job growth across the United States. Inspiring successful start-ups—in the United States and around the world—is a priority for President Obama and me.