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Remarks at World Business Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker
Remarks at World Business Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Thank you, Rahm. It is great to be back in Chicago.

As you may have heard, I moved to D.C. for my new job. But I will admit that I snuck out of my office for an hour on Monday afternoon to go to the White House – because President Obama invited the Blackhawks to celebrate their Stanley Cup win. “You can take the girl out of Chicago. . . .”  

I have deep respect for the business leaders here, my many friends who are your members, as well as the organization, World Business Chicago. You are doing so much to make Chicago more innovative and competitive.  

I look forward to our discussion, but first I want to reflect on what we know: GDP is at an all-time high. Our stock market has passed pre-recession highs. Our exports are at all-time records–hitting $2.2 trillion in 2012, up $600 billion since 2009. Our housing market is rebounding. And businesses have created 7.6 million jobs in the past 43 months – including half-a-million jobs in manufacturing. This progress reflects the strength and resilience of firms like yours.

During my first few months as Secretary, I was in 13 states and heard from hundreds of CEOs and business leaders across the country. What did I learn?  That businesses have confidence in their products and services and in their overall ability to compete.

We know that CEOs want certainty–certainty that Congress will stop manufacturing crises. It is clear that the shutdown and the debt limit brinksmanship hurt our businesses, our economy, and job creation. These self-inflicted wounds must stop. Instead, our country needs to turn its focus to the ways we can strengthen our economy and create jobs. The Obama administration is focused on growth and setting the conditions for your firms to prosper.

I want to briefly mention three areas–infrastructure, skills, and R&D.  Not surprisingly, these areas are also mentioned in the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs that World Business Chicago wrote for the City.

First, it is clear that we need to invest more in our infrastructure. Under the President’s leadership, we have improved 350,000 miles of roads, 6,000 miles of rail, and 20,000 bridges. However, we have deferred trillions of dollars in infrastructure investment.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our country a D+ grade for infrastructure.

With interest rates still low, the president wants us to put more construction crews back to work building and modernizing our transportation hubs and links.The long-term benefits are clear: more efficient movement of goods, stronger exports, and more competitive businesses overall. Key concerns here in Chicago revolve around roads and rails, as well as fortifying our digital infrastructure.

For our part, the Commerce Department has deployed more than 100,000 miles of broadband since 2009. And I know that Mayor Emanuel is championing efforts to lay more fiber optic cable throughout the city. In sum, we need it all–from bridges to broadband.

Secondly, our country needs more workers with the right skills. As you know, I was deeply involved in education and workforce issues here in Chicago.  

When I was on the school board, we launched five high schools focused on STEM education in partnership with IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Motorola, and Verizon. That effort is important because we know that STEM-related jobs are growing three times as fast as others, and our children deserve to be prepared for those opportunities.

On a broader scale, the key to fixing the skills problem is to bring all of the local stakeholders together to ask: What do our employers need in their workforce? I believe that businesses need to be more active in working with training partners to develop meaningful curricula and broadly-recognized, stackable credentials. Many firms around the country are stepping up to the plate. 

I am pleased to say that Labor Secretary Tom Perez and I are working together closely on this issue to help our businesses have the workforce they need to grow our economy. And because we know that a thriving private sector creates broad economic opportunity.

Let me just mention one more area related to our workforce–because so many CEOs have mentioned it to me: Immigration reform–I have yet to meet a business leader against it. The fact is, about 40 percent of the Fortune 500 were started by first- or second-generation Americans. And nearly one-fourth of the U.S. workforce is foreign-born.

The immigration bill that passed the Senate will expand temporary and high-skilled immigration programs–programs that businesses need now. Plus the bill provides a green card to masters and Ph.D. students who graduate with STEM degrees.

We need folks in Washington to wake up to the fact that we are in a global competition for talent. It’s mind-boggling to think that Chicago universities attract some of the world’s brightest students, give them a top-notch education, and then we force these potential innovators and job creators to leave. That’s unacceptable.

With projections saying that immigration reform will increase real GDP by about $1.4 trillion in 2033, this should be at the top of our country’s to-do list. I encourage you to make your voice heard on this issue.

Finally, our country needs more federal support for R&D and innovation. Every competitive country in the world understands the need to publicly invest in R&D to create a broad base for potential breakthroughs. The President and I believe that we need to double federal funding for R&D, helping reverse the erosion we’ve seen. 

Consider this: As a percentage of all basic research funding, federal funding has dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to about 57 percent in recent years. We need to fix that to ensure that more game-changing ideas can move from the lab to the marketplace.

As we move to our discussion, I would be happy to talk about infrastructure, skills, immigration, R&D, or other topics, from the need to reform our uncompetitive and overly-complex corporate tax system, to the need for spurring more American manufacturing, which I will testify about next week on Capitol Hill, to building on our momentum in areas such as exporting and attracting inbound investment. Overall, both the president and I believe that we can promote growth and jobs while also being fiscally responsible.

Let me close my opening comments with a commitment. I believe that we at the Commerce Department need to hold ourselves to the same high standards that your businesses do. We should continue to provide a strong ROI for America’s companies, communities, and taxpayers–including those here in Chicago. And we should be driven by outcomes, just like any business with a bottom line.

My team is working every day to foster that culture throughout government. Together, we must continue to send a message loud and clear that America–and its great cities like Chicago–are Open for Business. Thank you. I look forward to our conversation.