Remarks by Ambassador Chris Lu at APEC Second Senior Officials’ Meeting, Human Resources Development Working Group

Ambassador Chris Lu
U.S. Representative for UN Management and Reform
Detroit, Michigan
May 16, 2023


“Good morning, welcome to Detroit. As we gather here today, it’s clear that the world is changing at an unprecedented pace, and this requires us to re-evaluate our approach to workforce development.

In order to keep pace with the changing demands of the economy, we need a workforce system that is equally nimble, adaptable, and responsive. This means investing in education and training programs that prepare workers for the jobs of the future, not just the ones that exist today. This requires a collaborative effort between government, businesses, educational institutions, and workforce development professionals.

As the great Henry Ford once said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”

We also need to ensure that our workforce system is inclusive and equitable, providing equal opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their background or circumstance. This requires a concerted effort to address systemic barriers to employment, such as discrimination, bias, and unequal access to resources.”

Okay, now, let me pause from my prepared remarks to explain something. I need to make a confession: Every word I just said over the past 90 seconds was written by artificial intelligence. Every single word.

Last weekend, as I was preparing to draft these remarks, I opened up ChatGPT, and typed in this command: “Assume you are a U.S. ambassador speaking to a group of workforce development professionals. Give a brief explanation about how the world is changing quickly and why we need a workforce system that is equally nimble. And include a quotation from Henry Ford.” Who as many of you know was from Detroit.

What ChatGPT churned out were the words that I opened my speech with. The insights were maybe a bit sterile, but they were certainly accurate. I made no changes to sentence structure or punctuation. Everything came from ChatGPT – from the opening greeting of “Good Morning, Detroit” to the part about training for the jobs of tomorrow to the part about inclusion and equity. Even the Henry Ford quote was generated by AI.

So why did I do this exercise? To make the point that the world is changing faster than any of us can imagine. ChatGPT was released just six months ago, and already, people are saying that the generative AI will be as transformative as globalization or the advent of the internet. Depending on your point of view, that is very exciting. Or really disturbing. Or both.

Now that you’ve heard from a computer, let me provide some of my own thoughts in my own words. I promise this is all Chris Lu – a real, live person who used to be the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor and is now an ambassador at the United Nations.

It’s clear that this convening could not be happening at a more important time in our history. And it’s appropriate we’re holding this event in Detroit.

Back in the 1950s, a young person in Detroit could go straight from high school to a unionized job in an auto plant. It would be a 9 to 5 job in the same physical location that would provide him a good wage and health care and allow him to raise a family, buy a house, and have a secure retirement. You’ll notice I used the term “him,” because we really were talking about men.

That’s not the economy of Detroit any more – and it’s certainly not the economy in the U.S. or much of the world. In recent years, we have seen dramatic changes in who goes to work, how they work, and where they work.

  • Globalization has broadly raised the standard of living, but caused entire industries to move around the globe based on tax rates, the cost of labor, and government incentives.
  • The internet has helped democratize access to information and given workers and companies the ability to sell their goods and services to anyone in the world. But the lack of digital access has increased inequality.
  • The gig economy has given workers the chance to work at hours of their own choosing and for multiple employers if they choose. But it has also weakened their job protections and benefits.
  • Remote working arrangements that accelerated due to the pandemic enable people to work from home and better balance family obligations, while also saving time that would’ve spent computing. But again, remote work is only possible with digital connectivity.
  • And as I just demonstrated a few minutes ago, artificial intelligence has the chance to make workers more productive by eliminating repetitive functions. AI also has the ability to replace entire jobs or industries.
  • Let me say something about artificial intelligence. Like globalization, there will be people who prosper – and people who are left behind. But unlike globalization, the disruption may be the most pronounced for people who thought they had lifelong job security because they were engaged in highly-skilled and creative professions. After all, we’ve spent years telling kids to become computer coders, and now AI can do coding. AI can translate languages, it can prepare medical reports, and it can write newspaper articles. It can even write a speech that someone gives at an APEC convening.

Goldman Sachs predicts that two-thirds of jobs in the U.S. could be affected by artificial intelligence, and 300 million jobs worldwide could become fully automated.

Whether the driver of change is globalization, the internet or artificial intelligence, we know the economy of 5 or 10 years from now won’t look like today. So, it’s critical that we prepare our workforce in different ways. When I served as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor, the workforce system in too many places was based on a model of “train and pray”: you train people for jobs and pray that they get them.

So, while we don’t know what the economy of tomorrow will look like, what we do know some of the key elements that will be needed in our education and training system:

  • A renewed emphasis on vocational and technical education in high school.
  • Community colleges to provide training after secondary school and to assist in the retraining of older workers, particularly those whose jobs have disappeared.
  • Apprenticeships to allow workers to learn on the job while they also gain a degree or certification.
  • Fully embracing technology and innovation in how we educate and train workers.
  • A much closer partnership between employers to ensure that we’re actually providing them with the skilled workforce they need to staff their businesses and hopefully grow them.
  • And above all else, a willingness to adapt quickly and constantly to changing circumstances.

Today, in the United States when we’ve experienced an unprecedented economic recovery under President Biden’s leadership. More jobs have been created during his time in office than under any recent president. The unemployment rate is lower than it’s been in over 50 years. But despite this tremendous record of success, too many people are still being left on the sidelines.

That includes: young people; people from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds, including indigenous populations; people with disabilities; women with child care obligations; people recently released from incarceration; older workers whose jobs have disappeared due to technology and globalization.

We need to bring people off the sidelines and back into the workforce. But we can’t stop there. We need to create not just jobs, but quality jobs that provide good wages and benefits. Too many people in the U.S. and around the world are working full-time and living in poverty.

We need to ensure there’s a level playing field for all workers. That means closing the persistent wage gap that leaves women earning less than men, and people of color earning less than white workers. That means protecting vulnerable workers at danger of workplace accidents; ensuring that workers are paid the wages they’ve earned; and combating the disturbing rise in child labor.

These are some of the significant challenges that we face in the U.S. But what is encouraging is that we’ve made significant progress over the past two years. And one of the critical ways that we address our challenges is by working with our partners in other countries to share ideas about how best to train our workers. That’s why this convening in Detroit is so important. We want to learn from you, and we hope you will learn from all of us. Because we all share the same goal of leaving no one beyond.

The collaborative work that all of you are doing mirrors what is happening at the United Nations right now. We’re at the halfway point of the 15 years process towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. This September, leaders from around the world will be convening in New York to assess where we are and recommit ourselves to these goals.

And as I’m sure all of you will attest, one of the most critical SDGs will be SDG 8. Through that SDG, we commit to a number of important employment goals:

  • Full and productive employment and decent work for all, as well as equal pay for work of equal value.
  • The reduction of youth who are not working or in school.
  • Immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor and child labor.
  • And the protection of labor rights and the promotion of safe and secure working environments.

Achieving these goals will not be easy. That’s why UN Secretary General Guterres has put forth an ambitious platform called Our Common Agenda to, in his words, “turbocharge” progress towards the SDGs. And one critical way to do that – and achieve equity and inclusion in education, training and employment – will be closing the digital divide.

We saw during the pandemic the dramatic learning gaps between areas with high digital connectivity and those with low connectivity. Conversely, we know that if we want to provide high-quality education and training and access to tools like AI, we need to first close the digital gap.

The Biden Administration is strongly committed to doing our part, and we’re joined by American companies like Microsoft, Google and Meta that have made significant commitments of money and expertise to bring the internet to the entire globe.

If we want to meet the 2030 goal on decent work, we can’t do this work alone. That’s why President Biden has committed the U.S. to working cooperatively in multilateral institutions on these issues, whether it’s at the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, or APEC.

One of the most important conversations we can have in the lead-up to the APEC economic leaders’ summit this fall is around jobs, and that’s why this convening is so important. We can’t afford to wait. Trust me, artificial intelligence isn’t waiting. Thank you.