The U.S. labor secretary called the diversity of the American workforce the nation’s “true competitive advantage” and warned during a July 30 speech in Atlanta that protectionism would hurt the U.S. economy.

“The best way to crater our economy is to install and implement protectionist measures,” said Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American cabinet member.

In her seventh consecutive year, Ms. Chao is the longest serving labor secretary since the Eisenhower administration.

While U.S. companies outsource 300,000 jobs per year, subsidiaries of foreign companies support an estimated 12-22 million jobs in the U.S. that would be in jeopardy if the government enacts tighter regulations toward foreign enterprise and trade, she said.

She cited her native China as an example of the negative impact of protectionism and the dynamism that economic openness can foster.  In doing so, she painted a dreary picture of the 30 years of self-imposed isolation the communist government implemented after it won a civil war and launched the People’s Republic in 1949. 

“There was no garbage on the streets because there was nothing to throw away,” she said.

But three decades since the government opened itself up in 1978, China has become an economic power, and its per capita income has increased 20-fold, she said.

Ms. Chao spoke to members of 24 local Asian-American associations at a short program addressing the challenges facing the 21st century American workforce. 

Free trade will inevitably result in job losses for some, but America’s resources are better spent on improving competitiveness than opposing the tide of globalization, she said.  The Labor Department’s responsibility is to ensure that workers have a safety net when the workforce goes through such growing pains.

With 17,000 employees, 3,500 career centers and a $70 billion budget, the department has a variety of programs work toward that end, Ms. Chao said.

Those who have lost jobs to trade are eligible for two years of unemployment insurance, new training, direct income assistance and help with medical expenses.  For workers over 50 whose new job pays less than their old one, the government pays half the differential.  

Some advocates point out that these programs are outdated and inadequate to address the inequities workers often face in today’s global economy. 

The Financial Services Forum, a consortium of financial executives, recently released a report recommending that the federal government expand and revise existing unemployment insurance programs and trade adjustment assistance.  Read about their recommended revisions here…

The forum’s top officials visited Atlanta recently for a globalization conference at Emory University.

Ms. Chao seemed to believe existing programs are ample indicators of the U.S. government’s compassion for its citizens. Entitlements make the Department of Health and Human Services the most heavily funded organization in American government, she said in her speech.

The National Association of Asian American Professionals’ Atlanta chapter, or NAAAP-Atlanta, led the team of organizations put together the event.  It was held at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Management.

Ms. Chao was already in Atlanta to speak at a conference of the Association of Government Accountants, so her office asked NAAAP-Atlanta to provide a forum for her to speak on labor issues. 

This wasn’t Ms. Chao’s first time in Atlanta or her first engagement with NAAAP’s chapter here. She came to the Georgia capital last year to speak at NAAAP’s national convention.

The local chapter is the largest in the country with more than 360 members and was chosen to host the event, which raised some $230,000 and drew 1,000 attendees, NAAAP-Atlanta president Tommy Yip told GlobalAtlanta.

In addition to remarks about fostering safety in the workplace and securing workers’ pensions, Ms. Chao shared snippets of her personal journey, which has shaped her desire to empower Asian-Americans in the workforce.

She is one of 400 Asian-Americans the Bush administration has appointed since the president took office in 2001, the most of any administration in U.S. history.

A native of China, Ms. Chao understands what she calls the “immigrant struggle.”  At 8 years old, she came to America with her mother and two sisters on a cargo ship from Taiwan, where they had fled during the civil war.

She spoke no English when they joined her father in New York.  She said her parents were imbued with a sense of optimism and the primacy of family and that she is a beneficiary of their determination. 

As secretary, she wants to preserve for others the same opportunities she received, she said. 

“I want to assure you that with all your planning, the future will be very bright for you,” she said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...