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Jobs Pitchman Takes Labor Department's Show On the Road

Jobs Pitchman Takes Labor Department's Show On the Road

Tom Perez is having fun at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He sits in a Corvette, climbs into a new pickup truck, and gamely poses for pictures next to a $140,000 Dodge Viper.

"Any federal employee who's driving a Dodge Viper either has a really good spouse, a really good inheritance or needs to be investigated by the inspector general," he jokes.

Perez, 52, became the Obama administration's labor secretary in July, and he's one of a parade of administration officials to stop by the auto show this week. The show celebrates an industry that has staged a remarkable comeback in recent years, thanks in part to help from the administration and taxpayers.

As Perez tells a local TV reporter: "The main note I'm taking is that manufacturing is alive and well in America and here in Detroit, and that the auto industry is absolutely roaring back."

The health of manufacturing in the U.S. is an issue close to Perez's heart. He's the son of Dominican immigrants, and grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. — another industrial city that's seen better days.

Lately he's become a high-profile pitchman for the president's economic message. He's fond of describing the Department of Labor as a kind of online dating agency, matching workers with jobs.

"We have to always have our ear to the ground, understanding what those demand needs are, because the days of train and pray are over," he says. "You don't train people to be widget-makers unless you know there's demand for widget-makers."

His next stop is Focus: HOPE, a Detroit community center and job training provider. He chats with Jamal Edwards, a senior at Wayne State University, who — in addition to pursuing a degree in engineering — is learning how to make auto parts.

About two dozen students are in training at Focus: HOPE, and the facility could handle twice that number if it had more money. Perez says it's frustrating "to see empty spaces and to know that the reason they're empty is not simply because there aren't people out there — quite the contrary, because of the lack of funds."

But more job training funds are not a part of the center's budget. Perez says this means that government departments — including Labor, Health and Human Services, Agriculture — need to better coordinate the 40-some job training programs they now run.

Perez is a former labor secretary for Maryland, but his most recent job was with the U.S. Department of Justice, where he was the assistant attorney general for civil rights. He sees parallels between the two posts and points to the March on Washington, which took place 50 years ago.

"That march was a march for jobs and a march for justice. When Dr. King was bailed out of jail in Birmingham, it was Walter Reuther and the UAW who bailed him out," Perez says. "The interconnection between labor rights and civil rights is very real."

Perez's final stop in Detroit is at the home of Shinola, a company that manufactures high-end watches and bicycles. Perez takes one of the bikes for a spin around the company's office.

Perez bikes in the offices of Shinola, a company that manufactures high-end watches and bicycles.
Brian Naylor / NPR
Perez bikes in the offices of Shinola, a company that manufactures high-end watches and bicycles.

"You know, this is inspiring me now. This is inspiring me to ride my bike back to work now," he says.

Shinola is a feel-good story. Its watch assemblers include a former pizza deliveryman and a woman who worked her way up from a janitor position. Shinola plans to expand further in the coming year into leather goods.

Perez says it's the American spirit at work. He says his department has to do more to help businesses like Shinola connect with potential workers.

"We have 2,500 American job centers out there, and one of the things we're doing is more aggressively marketing that fact," he says. "Too many businesses don't know that we exist. Too many people in need don't know we exist. That's why I spend so much time with large and small businesses alike educating them about who we are and what we do."

Perez's big push now is for an increase in the minimum wage. It's part of what he hopes to accomplish in the next three years, he says, to give people the opportunity like the one he had, to climb up to the middle class.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.