U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Lays Out a Path Forward for American Competitiveness in Remarks to Minnesota Business Partnership

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Press Release
09/11/2015 04:53 PM EDT

Today, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker laid out her vision of a path forward for American competitiveness in the 21st century during remarks before the Minnesota Business Partnership, a diverse group of executives from the state’s  largest employers.

Pointing to Minnesota as an example of a state with a long record creating and cultivating leading American companies, Secretary Pritzker discussed the key steps needed to expand our economy nationwide, spur growth for our businesses, and support the economic security of our workers, families, and communities.

In particular, she highlighted the core investments required to sustain lasting prosperity and strengthen U.S. economic leadership worldwide, including investments in a skilled workforce, in a robust trade agenda, in innovation and entrepreneurship, and in infrastructure.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Scott Wine, for your introduction, and thank you to the Minnesota Business Partnership for welcoming me to Minneapolis today.

I am so pleased to be here with Senator Amy Klobuchar. Over the past two and a half years, we have developed a terrific working relationship, whether on issues of patent reform, protecting steel manufacturers from unfair dumping, workforce development, or travel and tourism. Last week, I stopped by her book signing in Washington to show my support, only to find that I am mentioned in her book. I am proud to consider her an old friend. I also want to recognize a new friend, Mayor Betsy Hodges, who strives each day to promote fairness for local workers, to spur growth for local businesses, and to make Minneapolis “more than just a great city.”

This is my first trip to Minnesota as Secretary of Commerce, but not my first visit to the state. In my previous life in the private sector, I had an agricultural business in Owatonna. I have also enjoyed great theater at the Guthrie; explored the exhibits at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; and taken in a Garrison Keillor performance at the Fitzgerald Theater. I feel a real kinship with your city. And now, it is a privilege to return to discuss with you America’s competitiveness in the 21st century.

Before I address this topic, I would like to take a moment to remember the nearly 3,000 people lost in the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. I am sure each of us remembers where we were at that time. I know, for me, it is hard to imagine that this national tragedy happened 14 years ago. It seems like just yesterday.

I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial, a sober reminder of not only the vast number of parents, friends, colleagues, and neighbors who were lost, but also a vivid reminder of the human kindness, generosity, and bravery exhibited that day by so many Americans. The world we live in remains complex, with wide-ranging challenges from the forces of terror that want to threaten and undermine our way of life – our freedom of speech, our freedom of association, and our freedom to worship and assemble as we please.

To preserve these aspirations of our Founding Fathers, we must remain vigilant. And we cannot forget what the 9/11 Commission recommended: our national strength depends not only on the projection of our military might abroad, but on building a strong economic foundation here at home. This latter recommendation is a common responsibility – not simply one for the Department of Commerce, which I represent, but for all of you as well, leaders of our American business community.

This essential duty stands at the center of the mission of the Minnesota Business Partnership to maintain a high quality of life for your fellow Minnesotans and to keep your state’s economy globally competitive. Your organization and its mission are driven and shaped by your companies, the state’s largest employers – many of which started as local ventures and have grown into global powerhouses.

It is clear to many of us that the strengths of your community form the foundation of your ability to build and keep large businesses in your state. You boast an educated and skilled workforce that stays local. The Twin Cities rank in the top ten for the highest college graduation rate, and more than 80 percent of state college and university graduates remain in Minnesota to live and work. Your infrastructure spurs your competitiveness, from your leading airport, to your vast network of trucking and freight centers, to the 97 percent of Minnesota households with internet access.  You have established yourself as a hub for key growth industries, including health care, retail, food, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, medical research, and financial services. It is no wonder that CNBC recently named Minnesota number one among “America’s top states for business.”

As Secretary of Commerce, my job is to work to create the conditions for every community to replicate Minnesota’s success. To meet this goal, the Department of Commerce promotes trade and exports abroad, and foreign investment in markets at home. We support innovation and entrepreneurship, from research and discovery to the development and commercialization of new products. We collect, analyze, and disseminate data that informs smart business decisions and touches the lives of the American people every day. And we gather and act on environmental intelligence to help communities and companies prosper in a changing environment.

Working together, with our partners at every level of government and with leaders like you in the private sector, our economy has moved from recession to recovery to expansion over the past seven years. Today, the national unemployment rate is 5.1 percent; in Minnesota, the jobless rate stands at 4 percent. Today, businesses across the country have added 13.1 million jobs over 66 straight months – the longest stretch of private sector job growth on record. Today, new home sales are rising consistently; consumption and business investment are increasing steadily; and our gross domestic product expanded by 3.7 percent in the second quarter. This progress is welcome news. Yet we are not satisfied.

We have to acknowledge that globalization, advances in technology, ease of transportation, and the sheer pace of change have altered the conditions for a business or an individual to enjoy sustained prosperity. We have to acknowledge that too many consumers still lack confidence in the stability of our economy; that workers’ wages are still rising too slowly; and that households and businesses still face too much uncertainty.

Given these facts on the ground, the question for all of us is: what are the critical elements to keep America globally competitive? What can we do to ensure that the United States enjoys a dynamic economy where prosperity is sustainable and broadly shared?  What is America’s path forward?

The answer depends on all of us, in business and in government, in Minnesota and across the country. The answer depends on the choices we make, together, to strengthen our economy and to ensure that the 21st century is the next American century. The answer depends on whether we are willing and able to set aside differences of partisanship or politics, and take the steps necessary:

  • To invest in our people, so we utilize 100 percent of our talent;
  • To invest in a strong, robust trade agenda, so U.S. companies and our workforce have every opportunity to compete and win in the global marketplace;
  • To invest in innovation and entrepreneurship, so we can lead in advanced manufacturing and the digital economy; and
  • To invest in our infrastructure, so we can move our products and ideas at the speed required in the 21st century.

To start, we must always tap into our greatest resource: our people. Winning the war for talent is imperative if our country is to out-compete and lead the rest of the world. I know that leaders in this state’s public, private, and non-profit sectors recognize the urgency of this challenge. The Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership supports joint efforts between businesses and educational institutions to train or re-train workers, and keep high-quality jobs in state.

Just in recent months, this initiative has awarded grants to re-train students and employees in the medical device and aerospace industries and in the food processing, long-term care, and transportation sectors. Through this public-private partnership, you are ensuring that Minnesota’s workers remain ready and able to succeed and thrive.

America’s path forward must prepare all of our workers for the jobs of the 21st century. To meet this task, for the first time, the Commerce Department has made workforce training a top priority.  Through our “Skills for Business” initiative, we are breaking down silos and bringing together all of the stakeholders in our communities, including the private sector, community colleges, universities, non-profits, state and local governments, to better align training programs with the needs of businesses. To lead in the global economy, we must arm America’s workforce with the skills to compete.

America’s path forward must also expand opportunities for our businesses in markets worldwide. Last year, Minnesota companies exported over $21 billion in merchandise, a record high. You recognize that 96 percent of the world’s consumers live beyond our borders. And to increase your access to this vast base of potential customers, our Administration is negotiating tough, modern trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership represents an historic opportunity for America’s businesses in the fastest-growing market on the planet. By 2030, it is expected that the number of middle class consumers in the Asia-Pacific region will grow from roughly 500 million to more than 3 billion – more than six times the size of the expected U.S. market at that time.

Your firms need access to those markets with fewer barriers standing in your way. Yet TPP is not just about lowering tariffs; it is about ensuring fairness and creating a level playing field in global commerce. It is about raising labor, environmental, and intellectual property standards in the countries with which we have free trade. TPP and other trade agreements are not only important to the success of your businesses, but to the economic security of the 11.7 million Americans nationwide whose jobs are supported by exports. Here is the bottom line: new trade agreements are good for you, good for your workers, and good for our country’s economy.

America’s path forward requires us to nourish and support our innovators and entrepreneurs.  Since the founding of our nation, Americans have applied their ingenuity to develop great ideas into great businesses right here in the United States. Minneapolis-St. Paul has long embraced this tradition.

This region is home to General Mills, which started with two brothers and a single flour mill located by St. Anthony Falls – and is now a household name. This area is home to Cargill, which began with a young entrepreneur and a grain storage warehouse – and is now one of the top providers on the planet of agricultural, financial, and industrial products. This city is home to Target, which opened as Dayton’s Dry Goods on Nicollet Avenue – and is now one of the best-known retailers anywhere. And this community is home to SPS Commerce, which originated as a software development start-up in St. Paul – and is now Minnesota’s largest publicly-traded technology company, providing cloud-based supply chain management solutions to retailers worldwide.

Nearly everyone in this room has a similar tale of success – a story of ambitious, visionary founders, who took risks, opened a business, succeeded, and embody the American dream. Innovators drive our prosperity in every generation. Today is no different. And our entrepreneurs must be able to bring their ideas from lab to market, access needed capital, and sell their products in markets around the world.

To meet this challenge, the Department of Commerce serves as “America’s Innovation Agency.” We issue patents that protect intellectual property. We offer start-ups the tools to think global from day one. We support advanced manufacturing with the creation of institutes focused on pre-competitive research in new technologies like 3D printing, photonics, digital design, and lightweight metals.

We work with communities to develop comprehensive economic development strategies that maximize their strengths. For example, this region is recognized as a top innovator in the medical device field, and the Commerce Department is collaborating with the Minnesota Medical Manufacturing Partnership, which has crafted a strategy to strengthen the local ecosystem for entrepreneurship, to market this state’s medical and life sciences cluster worldwide, and to optimize this area’s talent base through innovative training programs focused on medical manufacturing.

Through our Department’s efforts to spur innovation, we aim to set the conditions that allow any American to start and grow a business – to open what could be the next General Mills, Cargill, Target, or SPS. We know that when these Americans succeed, they create leading firms; they enhance our competitiveness; they strengthen our economy; and they create good paying jobs.

America’s path forward must also ensure our people and ideas can move at the rapid pace of today’s economy. Technological innovation and economic growth go hand-in-hand. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, businesses are connected to customers through over 1,700 miles of fiber networks. Nationally, this Administration has invested in more than 113,000 miles of broadband. Yet more than 20 percent of homes in the United States still have no access to high-speed internet, placing our communities at a disadvantage.

In addition, our physical infrastructure has long suffered from under-investment. Over the past decade, we have been funding our infrastructure in three-month increments. That short-sighted approach only serves to hamstring our economic growth and hamper our competitiveness. Right now, we need legislation that provides adequate long-term funding of our infrastructure to address our immediate maintenance backlogs, support needed expansions, and alleviate congestion for commuters. We need a predictable, consistent, stable stream of funding to allow state and local governments to plan and execute necessary and urgent projects, so businesses like yours can get goods to market.

Here in Minneapolis, you have firsthand experience with the tragic consequences of inadequate reinvestment in infrastructure. You appreciate the urgency of this challenge – in terms of public safety, quality of life, and our global competitiveness. If this issue is important to you, the time is now to speak up. We need leaders in the business community to make it clear that in the United States of America, we cannot fund our infrastructure three months at a time. In the United States of America, we cannot under-invest in our roads and bridges, our rail lines, our ports and airports, and our broadband networks.

As I said at the outset, we, as leaders, have to make choices. Whether in business or in government, our choices require us to be clear about our priorities. Right now, in Washington, Congress faces some important choices about our budget.  To be honest, when I was in the private sector, I never truly understood the federal budget process.

Now, I see the consequences of our budget debates firsthand – the impact on our ability to govern, on your businesses, and on our economy. It really comes down to a basic choice: Will Congress pass a responsible budget that invests in our economy, in families, in our military readiness, in schools, and in our infrastructure – in the very foundation of our competitiveness? Will we pass a responsible budget that gives federal agencies the certainty they need to plan for the year?

Or will we leave the so-called “sequester” in place, which would automatically force short-sighted cuts to investments and services, regardless of their effect on our economic or national security? Or, even worse, will Congress risk shutting down the government for the second time in three years, over issues that are unrelated to the budget itself?

Mindlessly slashing investments is no way to run a business when you are trying to grow and compete, and playing political games with our budget is no way to run our government when our global competiveness is at stake. It will take all of us being clear to our leaders that we must choose to make smart, necessary investments in our core priorities as a nation – in our infrastructure, in trade, in innovation, and in the skills of our workforce.

I know the choice I would make. I know the choice President Obama believes is right for our future. I know you as leaders of the Minnesota Business Partnership want a path forward that spurs lasting growth for our economy, that promotes economic security for our families, our companies, and our communities, that ensures the economic prosperity of the American people, and that keeps Minnesota and all of America open for business.

Thank you for inviting me here today.