Biden at UD jobs panel: ‘Times are a-changing’

NEWARK — A changing economy will continue to place the American middle class at risk unless the United States can adapt and businesses begin placing more emphasis on workers’ rights, former Vice President Joe Biden said at the University of Delaware Tuesday.

Mr. Biden was part of a panel of business, labor and government officials weighing in on how jobs are changing. Presented as part of the Biden Institute formed this year to examine domestic issues, the talk was titled “Choosing a Future of Quality Jobs.”

“Times are a-changing, and you better get with it or you’re going to get run over,” Mr. Biden said.

The world, he told an audience of several hundred people, looks drastically different than it did 40 years ago and the future of the middle class is murky. More tasks are becoming automated, he noted.

While some have proposed giving every citizen a “universal basic income” as jobs are taken over by machines, Mr. Biden expressed his opposition to the idea.

“‘A job’s about a lot more than a paycheck,’” he said, quoting his father. ‘“It’s about your dignity. It’s about your respect. It’s about your place in your community, it’s about controlling your life.’”

Introduced by UD President Dennis Assanis as the university’s “most distinguished alumni,” Mr. Biden was joined on the panel by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, former National Economic Council Advisor Byron Auguste, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry and MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren.
During the two-hour talk, Mr. Biden spoke of his support for raising the minimum wage to $15 and making community college “free,” two topics that have gained approval in Democratic circles in recent years.

Education is more important than ever, Mr. Biden said. According to a Georgetown University study, nearly two-thirds of American jobs will require more than a high school degree by 2020.

“Unless you have a continuing education you’re going to be obsolete in 10 years,” Mr. Biden said. “The knowledge you’ve acquired thus far will not take you through the enormous change that’s going to take place.”

Free universal education helped the United States become a world power, but other countries have caught up, he told the audience.

Panelists noted that while many companies will only hire workers with college degrees, Americans who did not receive higher education are not dumb.

“People confuse levels of education and how many years of school with what skills you have and what you can do,” Mr. Auguste said.

Technology is also a feature of an increasing number of jobs, and work itself is changing, Ms. Chao said.

“The jobs of the future are getting more and more sophisticated,” she said.

Mr. Biden weighed in the place of the American worker in today’s economy, and although he did not point to any specific companies, he said many major corporations are no longer investing in their workers. The pay of the average employee in a non-management position has barely increased in comparison to top CEOs’ earnings, he said.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, salaries of the top 1 percent of Americans grew 138 percent from 1979 to 2013, compared to 15 percent for the bottom 90 percent. The think tank also reported hourly pay increased 9 percent from 1973 to 2013, while productivity rose 74 percent.

Mr. Biden’s focus on a shifting economy is similar to statements made by Gov. John Carney and former Gov. Jack Markell, who have focused on making Delaware’s economy driven more by small businesses and entrepreneurs than large legacy employers like DuPont.

The Biden Institute will host more programs in the future although few specifics have been announced thus far.

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