Former Vice President Joe Biden discussed economic challenges and the future of job growth for the middle class at the University of Delaware Tuesday night.
The panel discussion, which featured prominent business leaders, was the first since the March launch of the university’s Biden Institute, of which the 47th vice president chairs without salary.
The idea behind the institute is to bring public policy leaders together to develop solutions to issues ranging from economic reform, to environmental sustainability, as well as civil rights and women’s rights.
This time, the focus was on jobs and the economy—particularly for the middle class.
“There’s a sense of depression, of unease, of unarticulated unease, because some of them look at the future and wonder where they fit in the future,” Biden said. “Their whole lives, they have spent accomplishing a living standard and circumstance for their families—it is now very much in jeopardy. The fact is this change, as great change always is, is unsettling.”
The panelists discussed the need for job training, particularly in the technology fields, and the responsibility of employers to hire locally and offer them the necessary training.
“A guaranteed minimum wage for those accustomed to working hard their whole lives, it may allow them to pay their rent put, food on the table, have healthcare, but what about their dignity? I think the defining notion of the idea of America was everyone no matter what their station is entitled to be treated with dignity,” Biden said.
“For people to live a middle class life, it’s more about their security and a standard of living than any particular number.”
U.S. secretary of transportation and former U.S. secretary of labor Elaine Chao said she is concerned about finding solutions to potential displacement that could result from advancing technology.
“With the displacement of technology, new jobs will be created, there will be different types of workers and skillsets required. Work is becoming more and more highly skilled and information technology is increasingly important,” she said.
“When we talk about federal training programs, we have to make sure they’re flexible, they’re responsive and demand driven. Federal training programs have to train people for jobs that actually exist—so that’s a big challenge. These jobs are going to be there, but they’re going to be more sophisticated, require higher skills, and we have a responsibility to help those caught in the transition to help them transition to either training opportunities, different kinds of jobs—but the transition, especially those of a certain age, a certain population, they are the most hurt and anxious.”
Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, said employers have a responsibility to allow for growth among their employees.
“It takes a force of will from the top to hire locally. We have 3,000 employees in the city of Detroit, and I hired half of them from the city of Detroit. Many of them were underemployed or unemployed. I just need willing people and I will provide the skills. Companies that say they can’t find qualified workers they’re not trying had enough,” he said.
“The best trained men and women come from our military. Why wouldn’t companies like mine put them to work? The majority of my employees are minorities. Three of my 10 board members are female, and before I retire the majority of my board members will be women because we know women are smarter than men and I want to have as many as I can.”
Byron Auguste, president and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, said today’s employers don’t give job seekers a fair chance.
“Only seven percent of hiring now is entry-level hiring. When you combine that with the fact jobs and skills are changing, and you create a job that has only existed a year or two and then you put a job description that says what someone has to have done in the last 10 years of their life to even be considered—until Elon Musk invents a time machine we have a problem,” he said. “We’re essentially defining half of the people not having the right profile for the job before we’ve seen what they can do. The first thing we have to do is stop pre-judging what people can do and let people show what they can do.”
Panelists, like Mary Kay Henry, the president of Service Employees International Union, said unions are often essential to ensuring an ethical work force—but it requires everyone to work together to make a difference.
“It requires government, employers and working people to share our vision and values,” she said. “We have to return to understanding we have a basic set of values, and when you work hard you ought to be able to lead decent life.”