Deputy Secretary Christopher P. Lu manages the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) 17,000 employees who seek to expand work opportunities for all Americans. He co-edited the book, Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Congress: Case Studies in Legislative Leadership and spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Matirosyan at the recent CSUN conference in Northridge, CA, also known as the Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. DOL consultant Josh Christianson joined in to discuss a new DOL app that helps streamline the job application process.
Chet Cooper: Deputy Secretary, is this a new position for you?
Deputy Secretary Christopher Lu: I’ve been on the job since April 2014.
Cooper: Did you take over from Kathy Martinez?
Lu: No. There’s the secretary, the deputy secretary—which is me, the number two person—and then we have about 10 assistant secretaries, and Kathy was one of those. She was in charge of the Office of Disability and Employment Policy.
Cooper: Is there anybody in her place now?
Lu: We have an acting assistant secretary, a wonderful woman named Jennifer Sheehy.
Cooper: Oh, I we Jennifer!
Lu: She’s fantastic.
Cooper: So why is she acting? It’s not a bad profession, but—
Lu: It’s a Senate-confirmed job, and in this climate getting anybody confirmed is very challenging. Literally no one is getting confirmed at this point, so she’ll stay in the acting role, where she seems perfectly happy.
Cooper: After Jennifer’s installed, maybe we can get a Supreme Court justice nominated.
Lu: Believe me, I feel incredibly lucky! I got confirmed two years ago, before the door closed.
Cooper: But even then it was tough.
Lu: It was. But I spent a good chunk of my career working on Capitol Hill, so I did establish several relationships.
Cooper: On both sides of the aisle?
Lu: Yes. But at this point it’s not about the merits of any one person. It’s one of the things I think is most troubling about our political system right now. It’s become so divisive, and it shouldn’t be. The vast majority of issues we work on as a department aren’t partisan at all. Our employees have a variety of functions. I divide up our work in two ways: (1) We train people for jobs and help them find jobs. (2) We work to protect people. We obviously have OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), and we’ve got the Wage and Hour Division (WHD). We enforce workplace laws, including some of the anti-discrimination laws that protect people with disabilities. We often think of the Department of Labor as the department of opportunity. Our job is to provide economic opportunity for people, and the best way you can do that is by giving them access to good, quality jobs, which allows people to have good, middle-class lives.
One of the reasons why I’m here is to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to succeed, whether it’s people with disabilities, veterans, women, disadvantaged young people… There are far too many people who have not shared in the broad-based prosperity that we’ve had in this country. When you look at people with disabilities, the unemployment rate is about double what it is for people without disabilities. But, even worse, I think the labor force participation of non-disabled people is 2/3, 60 percent, and with people with disabilities it’s about 18 percent or 20 percent. People aren’t even getting a chance to participate in the workforce. These are issues that we confront.
Martirosyan: That is so frustrating.
Lu: In the 21st century, it’s a global competition with other companies, and in this competition we need to feel the full pain, and we’re not feeling the full pain. There are a substantial number of people who are left on the sidelines, and a large percentage of them are people with disabilities. It’s important for me to come to conferences like this to show our commitment, but also, frankly, to learn. In this job I’ve certainly had an awareness of the challenges within this community, and now I have an increased awareness of those challenges, but I’m excited about how technology can help address a lot of those issues. In my CSUN talk, I laid out a lot about how technology is so ingrained in everyone’s life. It’s not only your work life, it’s your personal life. It allows you to engage with more people and more information than ever before. But if it’s not accessible, you’re being shut out of a huge part of what is in our workplace and in our society. So I’m excited to come here to learn, to try out all kinds of technology, and to see how we can better support these efforts.
Cooper: It’s really good that you’re here, especially for the Department of Labor to come out to this one event in particular. The hands-on experience really opens your eyes.
Lu: We have a lot that we can do. We’ve got grant money that we can give out to foster best practices on disability employment. We’ve got regulations we’ve put out that incentivize the hiring of people with disabilities. I think one of the best tools we have is our bully pulpit, coming to venues like this and saying, “We’re the federal government. We care about these issues. We want to support your efforts.” When we go around and try on technologies and people take photos of me trying the technology, that’s a good thing. A lot of this technology is not only great for people with disabilities, it’s great for people without disabilities. I’m excited about what this means for everyone.
Cooper: Have you seen any new technology?
Lu: I tried out Sesame, using the movement of my head to click on things. Can you imagine what this could mean for a multitasker? I can shift my eyes or move to one side and that moves a [computer] mouse. The amount by which it could increase my productivity! We were also talking about the Dragon technology (Dragon Speech Recognition Software) that allows you to transcribe words. That has huge implications for people with disabilities. If I ever do another a book, I’m just going to speak the whole thing and use Dragon to transcribe it.
Cooper: Some people lack finger dexterity. I often see people talk to their phones to transcribe emails.
Lu: And I think that’s a lot of what we need to do to commercialize some of this technology, and to show the implications for people without disabilities. I’m really intrigued by the driverless car, because I have been taught by Kathy Martinez that one of the greatest challenges for people with disabilities is transportation. If you could figure out a car that drives itself and can help people who are blind get to work, that would be phenomenal. But more important than that, the technology that goes into the driverless car can produce safety features for all cars, because it can evaluate the distance between cars and adjust your speed. If you put that into existing cars, it has the ability to reduce accidents, even if we’re driving those cars. I think that’s one of the keys here, to show how that technology can help everybody.
Martirosyan: And for multitaskers, can you imagine going to work with all this extra time?
Lu: If I’m using my Sesame while I’m in my driverless car, with my Dragon, talking, moving my head at the same time—
Cooper: —eating breakfast—
Lu: —eating breakfast, shaving, (laughter) it’d be pretty phenomenal.
Cooper: Showering, what the heck? (laughter) I think of that all the time, the benefits of having a driver, but if the car was the driver, it’s really—
Martirosyan: Those extra hours of the day that we’re always looking for.
Cooper: Yeah, we’re all overworked. Is this your first technology conference?
Lu: It’s my first CSUN. But it’s not going to be my last. This is a lot of fun.
Cooper: Did I read that your team is about to launch something?
Lu: TalentWorks. It’s a really exciting initiative. We were looking at expanding the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities and realized that one of the greatest impediments is inaccessibility of online hiring. We did a survey and found that 56 percent of people with disabilities had found out about a job and applied for it by using a mobile device. But many of the features they were using were inaccessible to them. In that same survey, 46 percent of people with disabilities said that their last experience of applying for a job online was “difficult to impossible.” So we realized that technology provides a wonderful virtual tool to interview people, to assess them, to post jobs and to apply for them, but if those tools aren’t accessible, you’ve narrowed the pool of people you’re trying to attract.
TalentWorks is an online portal that provides best practices for employers who want to improve the way they recruit and hire online. It’s meant to be constantly updated and include an online community where people share ideas about how we can improve. We hope that it allows greater access, because people just aren’t applying for jobs through their Sunday newspaper classifieds anymore.
Cooper: They’re not circling ads.
Lu: They’re not taking their résumé, folding it in thirds and mailing it off. They’re applying online. And to ensure that all of those different avenues are as successful as possible, we launched TalentWorks. It’s live now. We want to hear from employers, advocates, etc., whether it helps or not, and what improvements are needed. It’s meant to be a compendium of best practices for employers.
Cooper: Who put it together?
Lu: Josh can tell you more about that part.
Josh Christianson: We were trying to look at the biggest obstacles for people with disabilities in the workplace. We were talking to researchers and vendors and asking them what the problems were, and it quickly became clear that it was online job applications. We decided to go to the source and put out a survey.
Cooper: What do you mean by the “source”?
Christianson: To people identified as people with disabilities who had applied for a job online within the last year.
Cooper: How did you find them?
Christianson: We used a lot of advocacy organizations we partner with to say, “Can you spread the word?” We had people take a survey, and through that we were able to identify some of the main pain points people report when they’re dealing with online job applications. Those issues were what we addressed in most of the resources we put out. Then we went to developers and employers who said, “What are the best practices for how to get around them?” So everything from initial social media and outreach for improvement, to video interviewing, to ways to make the process accessible in order to bring a new employee on board.
We hope to have this move on to the employment life cycle, where once you’re hired and in the job, that your workplace technology is accessible so workers can do their job appropriately. We heard that e-recruiting is an issue. We put out a survey so we could hear from users specifically, and that really drove the work we did regarding solutions.
Cooper: I saw the brief this morning, and you have only one job board on there.
Christianson: We’re not promoting that job board. They do have an accessible platform. They were one of the many collaboratives we had to inform about what we do. But we talked to lots of people who have different platforms.
Cooper: But they’re the only ones mentioned, at least when I accessed the information with my phone.
Christianson: We did a blog with them where they kind of gave us their best user experiences. But they’re a pool of employers themselves. We talked to their customers on why it’s important to reach accessible talent. If you look at our webinar list, we have lots of different organizations that promote accessible job seeking. We do talk with lots of different folks.
Cooper: We know of other systems that are bigger and/or have been around longer than theirs.
Christianson: Our company is not the government. This project is actually funded by a grant. So we have a little more flexibility in what we can do. But a lot of it comes down to who collaborates with us. We put a wide net out, and we’re always happy to talk with folks and get thought leaders to share their ideas. They had done a survey with users as well, and that was our first connection point. The site is meant to change and evolve. We want to get more voices and ideas represented.
Lu: Government can be a powerful agent for driving change. But we can’t solve these problems. We don’t have the resources. This ultimately has to be a collaboration with private business, nonprofits and advocates. We come into this without a monopoly of good ideas. I want to hear from other people. If somebody tells me a great way to do something, that’s wonderful.
It’s part of the flexibility in the grant. We bring together all kinds of people: public, private. We work with state agencies and other federal agencies.
Cooper: What about New Jersey?
Lu: Sure, why not?