The Business of Government Hour


About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Shelley Hymes interview

Friday, September 28th, 2001 - 20:00
Shelley Hymes
Radio show date: 
Sat, 09/29/2001
Intro text: 
Shelley Hymes
Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

MR. LAWRENCE: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and the co-chair of The Endowment for The Business of Government. We created The Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about the Endowment by visiting us on the Web at

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation today is with Shelley Hymes, Director of the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative, in the U.S. Department of Labor. Welcome, Shelley.


MR. LAWRENCE: Well, let's begin by finding out more about the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative. Could you tell us its history and it's mission?

MS. HYMES: Yes. Secretary Chao, when she came on-board at the department in late January or early February, was thinking about what she wanted to have as her legacy when she left the Cabinet and what she really wants to do, more than anything, is to help the workforce come into the twenty-first century. And by that she means that some people have jumped into this century, are very acclimated with the new technologies and are flourishing. And there are others who have not gotten the training necessary to be able to compete in this new knowledge-based society. So, her point is to help everybody come into the twenty-first century.

And at first she was thinking of maybe hosting a summit, which we did but, then, she decided beyond a summit that she wanted to create a new office. And she spoke with the President about it. And they both decided that it was a good idea. So the President signed an Executive Order on June 20, creating the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce, and I'm lucky enough to be the director of it.

MR. LAWRENCE: Are its initiatives designed around producing specific results? Is it in terms of enhancing education, building skills, providing information? How should I think about it?

MS. HYMES: Well, it's a terrific job because the twenty-first century can really mean so many things. But there are three general focuses that we're concentrating on: The first is the skills gap within the workforce, which may be the first and foremost issue regarding people being able to all be part of this new workforce. So, we're focused on the skills gap, which, obviously, has a lot to do with training and adult training, particularly, since that's what our department focuses on.

The second issue is that of demographics. The demographics, what the secretary calls the incredibly shrinking workforce, are incredibly interesting. I think they're interesting, we think they're interesting at the department. Our workforce, also, is shrinking and it's becoming more and more difficult to find qualified workers. And so what the secretary wants to do is tap into untapped resources and the demographics have a lot to do with older workers being able to work; those with disabilities getting back into or getting into the workforce for the first time; perhaps, stay-at-home moms.

New technologies are now allowing us to work in so many different ways that we can attack this demographic problem in several different ways and that's our second main focus.

The third focus is something that we're calling the future of the workplace. And that has a lot to do with work/family issues. We're focusing on how people are working, when they're working, where they're working, what they want out of work; how are people balancing work and family. They're terrific issues.

Those are our three main focuses.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, tell us about yourself. Tell us about your career and how you became the director of the office.

MS. HYMES: I came to Washington in 1988 and I worked for the President's father. I worked for Jack Kemp, initially at HUD in the policy shop. And then I worked for Michael Boskin at the Council of Economic Advisors as a press secretary. And I continued in the communications field and ended up working for Senator Connie Mack as his communications director at the Joint Economic Committee.

And I stayed at the Joint Economic Committee and was promoted every two years. First I was communications director, then I was his staff director when he was vice chairman. And the last two years, I was his staff director when he was the chairman of the committee. And in that capacity, we held a number of high-tech summits that were the first of its kind on the Hill and I got to know fairly well a gentleman named Stephen Law who is now the Secretary's chief of staff. And through that relationship, when the Secretary was thinking about working on twenty-first century issues, which have a great deal to do with new technology, Stephen thought of me and contacted me. And I love these issues, I think this is a great idea.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, given the different places you've been in the last ten years, how would you contrast the approaches? I mean, you were once on the Hill, now you're in a department, you saw the White House. How does it all look from the different sides?

MS. HYMES: I think that it's actually not all that different. I mean, obviously, there are differences between being on the Hill and being in the Administration, but you're just constantly trying to keep the ball rolling and make some sort of movement. And in either capacity, movement is slow, but important and you just kind of have to, every day, keep pushing the ideas, pushing the ideas, which is what I've been involved in doing in anyplace that I've been.

MR. LAWRENCE: On reflecting on your career, which positions best prepared you for this job?

MS. HYMES: The last position that I had at the Joint Economic Committee. The Joint Economic Committee was a similar position, in that economics is also very pervasive. Economics can lead you into a discussion on almost any topic. And so I had a lot of latitude to focus on things that I thought were interesting and the new economy was one of those. And that's also what I'm focused on. So, I made some good friends, some good contacts in the high-tech industry, the biotech industry just, I think that was the best job for it.

And it allowed me to -- also, I have a great appreciation for the economics, whether it's the high-tech industry or the manufacturing industry, any of those industries, I have an appreciation for the numbers that they're dealing with and I think, I hope, the issues that they're facing.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, that sounds as though you learned a lot about the technical or the subject matter expertise. How about just the management of people and the dealing with getting an agenda completed?

MS. HYMES: Also, at the Joint Economic Committee, because when the senator became chairman from being vice-chairman, we were able to hire 15 new people, for a staff of 20. And so, it was, in essence, creating a new office. And that's what I'm doing again, it's a lot of fun.

MR. LAWRENCE: What are the biggest challenges?

MS. HYMES: That there is a new office within a bureaucracy and for example, my office doesn't exist in our phone book, right now. And, you know, getting the security guards to recognize that there's a new office and just kind of getting it up and running because in a bureaucracy, particularly in the Department of Labor, all these agencies have been there forever, so it's creating that little niche.

MR. LAWRENCE: And how about in terms of the qualities you've observed as good leadership in your career?

MS. HYMES: You mean, what do I think is good leadership?

MR. LAWRENCE: Yes, who have been the best leaders and what were the skills they had?

MS. HYMES: Oh, well, I think that Jack Kemp was a terrific mentor for me because he adored ideas and he was very open to different ideas and to people on his staff throwing out ideas. Jack is one of those people who doesn't think that any idea is dumb. And I think that that was terrific.

And Senator Mack, Connie Mack was a terrific role model because he was very even-tempered and he didn't get very riled, depending on the crisis of the day, he was even-tempered, he took a long-term approach and I really admired that in him and I try to incorporate that in my management style.

MR. LAWRENCE: You've seen a lot of other people, no doubt, who come to the Administration without the kind of experience you have. Do you think previous experience in government is a plus or a minus?

MS. HYMES: I think it is a plus because you have maturity and experience. And experience, I think, is always a plus but I think being fresh is terrific, also, because they're so excited and they have new ideas and they're not bogged down with the knowledge that it's so difficult to get from point A to B to C. So, it's fine either way, it's good to have a mix.

MR. LAWRENCE: We've heard a lot of people say, boy, all those folks who came from private sector are in for a big surprise when they get to government.

MS. HYMES: Right.

MR. LAWRENCE: How different it is. What are they talking about?

MS. HYMES: Well, I think they're talking about; to some extent inertia. Although when they come from big private companies, their transition is a lot easier because there's a lot of bureaucracy in those companies, as well. Perhaps not as much inertia but, definitely a lot of bureaucracy.

I think, also, the Administration, in a bureaucracy, there's a lot of signing-off on things. You can't really do anything without 20 people signing-off. And there are some constituencies that have been there much longer than you with histories and things of that nature that you're fighting. It's, you know, you're trying to turn around a very big ship in a very short period of time.

MR. LAWRENCE: That's great. Well, it's time for a break, we'll be back with more on the business of government. When we come back, join us, because did you ever wonder what skills you'll need to prepare yourself for the future? Shelley Hymes, the director of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative will give you some ideas. Be with us as we continue with The Business of Government Hour.


MR. LAWRENCE: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and today's conversation is with Shelley Hymes, Director of the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Well, Shelley, what are the most important steps that the Initiative will take to help Americans prepare for the workforce for the future?

MS. HYMES: Paul, as I was telling you before we got back on the show, the office has just been created, so a lot of our ideas are not beyond an embryonic stage, but we're still figuring out exactly what we're going to do. What we know we're going to do initially, which we're mandated to do is to create an advisory council for the office. That was also created by Executive Order. And those are presidential appointments to that council and we're in the process of getting that through the White House and establishing the council, which we're very excited about because we're going to put together a team of 13 people, including the Secretary and the director of OPM, Personnel Management, who is Kay Cole James, who is a terrific woman. And some stellar people from different industries and different walks of life. We're going to get everybody in a room, we're going to focus on the three issues that I mentioned to you: the skills gap; the demographics; and work/family issues.

And out of those meetings, we'll branch off and we'll have different committees focusing just on the skills gap; just on demographics; just on workplace issues. And within the year, we will have some solid ideas about how we will proceed. But, in the meantime, we're focused, for example, on the skills gap issue, we're looking at the idea of distance learning. The idea of being able to get the training necessary; training being such a critical part of this twenty-first century workforce, by staying in your home. Particularly, a good idea for stay-at-home moms who have maybe three hours while their kids are at work or a worker who can maybe take two hours a night after she puts her kids to bed or just after she gets home, you know, you can upgrade your training in the privacy of your own home.

We're going to be doing demo projects like that in the meantime. Partnering with other agencies to better coordinate our efforts at our one-stop centers. We're going to be enhancing our Job Corps centers, trying to get computers out to people. We have a lot of good ideas.

We're going to be doing things in the immediate future, but the Council and the different committees will also come up with some longer-term goals.

MR. LAWRENCE: Is the Council and the Advisory Committee composed entirely of government folks or will it be a cross sector?

MS. HYMES: No, it's union, non-union, CEOs, definitely a cross-section; older, disabled, a mix, male, female.

MR. LAWRENCE: What's your thinking about the role of the Initiative versus, say, what Americans should be doing for themselves? How is that all playing in? Is the Initiative to guide and direct ?

MS. HYMES: Largely, within the department, the Secretary uses two words very often and she uses the words clearinghouse and kind of an instigator. A clearinghouse for ideas and an instigator for promoting those ideas and taking actions within different agencies within the department.

So we're about helping people help themselves. I guess it's in concert with people doing things on their own. Our take on it, in this particular office, is that people need training skills; people need better training; new technologies; maybe they need new equipment; maybe we just need, in the government, to be aware of what people want. So it's not necessarily a nanny position, but we're definitely in the assistance mode.

MR. LAWRENCE: As a new initiative, who are your stakeholders?

MS. HYMES: Oh, everybody, employers and employees, we think. We had a summit on June 20 that the Secretary was terrific at. It was a summit at the MCI Center in Washington and there were two things going on at the summit. The first was that there was a job fair around the perimeter of the MCI Center, which we were particularly proud of because we had about 140 companies from the region with jobs available on that day and we helped a lot of people get jobs. We had 7,000 people at the job fair. And we're still getting information in about those results, but I think we got about several hundred people jobs, which was terrific. And the Secretary was very proud of that.

On the inside of the MCI Center, we made a tremendous effort to get a very diverse crowd to come and, again, it's reflective of the Council that we're putting together. Employees, employers, unions, non-unions, minorities, kids, adults, folks with disabilities, any group that you can imagine to come together. Our intent is to be very inclusive. So we feel that everybody is a stakeholder because everybody is a part of the workforce.

MR. LAWRENCE: With such a big and diverse stakeholder group, how do you communicate with them?

MS. HYMES: Well, that's a good question. And that's another aspect of this office that I will enjoy very much. One of the things that we're going to do is we're going to create a quarterly magazine. We have a terrific mailing list from the initial summit event and we also rely very much on the other agencies within the department for their mailing lists and we're going to put out a quarterly magazine, periodical which is still in the works but it's going to be maybe some best-practices in there, some guest columns, hopefully, as informative as we can make it. And that's certainly one way that we're going to do it.

We also have a fairly interactive website that we're using new technologies for. It's very interactive, you can click on a word and almost go anywhere with it and it's audio and you can hear the President speak. He was at the summit. Alan Greenspan was at the summit; we had terrific CEOs there; we had union presidents; all of those speeches are able to be uplinked.

We discussed lots of topics, if you go to any word on the website, you can get into more information from that topic. So those are two options and, hopefully, we'll think of some new ones.

MR. LAWRENCE: How are other agencies involved in the initiative?

MS. HYMES: It's terrific, actually. And I credit the Secretary and our chief of staff for coming up with a good idea. My office is intentionally small, it's probably going to be about 10-people strong and it's part of the Secretary's office, but our office is a compliment to not its own world within the agency, so I've hired, for example, a human resources expert, a terrific guy named Russell Harris, who has an expertise that a lot of the folks in the department don't have.

I'm hiring some event planners, some writers, some additional people but I need to reach out to and want to reach out to the policy folks for policy ideas; to the ETA folks for grants and demonstration projects; to the disability office, for that aspect; for the older workers office for that aspect; for the pension office, for their expertise. So everything that we do is really -- our office depends, greatly, on everybody's expertise. And we come with our own, which is that we have fresh ideas, we're in contact with different people and we're trying to promote and instigate new things. So we rely very heavily on other agencies and it's been very, very helpful because everybody then has a stake in what we're doing.

MR. LAWRENCE: What are the challenges of collaborating so widely?

MS. HYMES: Just, you know, that there are a lot of people on one topic and it's difficult to manage a lot of constituencies but, really, the good much outweighs the bad , far outweighs the bad.

MR. LAWRENCE: We know that the Initiative is working on rule changes, including allowing compensatory time off, rather than overtime pay, could you tell us about this?

MS. HYMES: This is something that the President spoke about when he was at the summit. Comp-time, which is being called family time is just the idea that, you know -- for example, and I'm sorry that the listeners can't see it -- if you're interested, we had the Bureau of Labor Statistics put out a terrific chart book and I do mean that it's terrific because it's very readable, understandable. Anybody who wants one can come to the website, the Twenty-First Century Office at

In any event, we know in that work/family aspect ,one of the three things we're focusing on ; we know that lots of women work. We know that parents are working 22 hours more a week than they did; that the commute is getting much longer; I mean, we understand that there are differences in the way people are working and the stresses people are under. And flextime is one way -- compensatory time or flexibility time -- is just one way of addressing it. It's not a mandate, it's just an idea to help families, parents and it's anybody, anybody who is working that hard needs time off for the unexpected, for the doctors appointments, for the sick dog, for the sick kid, for the sick parent, for the school meeting, things of that nature. So, it's just another idea about how people are working.

And one of the things my office will do is to highlight what's already working. We're not trying to recreate the wheel, but there are some companies that are getting a tremendous amount of success and their workers are very happy being able to be more flexible and we're just going to get the word out.

MR. LAWRENCE: All right, that's a good point for stopping. Stick with us through the break. When we come back, we'll ask Shelley Hymes, the Director of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative how she'll know if the Initiative is successful.

This is The Business of Government Hour.


MR. LAWRENCE: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and today's conversation is with Shelley Hymes, Director of the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Well, Shelley, what kinds of goals do you have for the Initiative for this year?

MS. HYMES: One of the goals is to really get my office up and running and capable to address the Secretary's needs and concerns, so I want to get the office up and running. I'm hiring some terrific people, as I mentioned.

I want to get the Council staffed and get the Council to meet. I would like to also get the subcommittees of the Council staffed and have already met. And then I want to get a publication out so that we can start getting some information because we're talking to people all the time. People have been very, very nice to the Secretary and myself. Everybody seems really intrigued by this issue of the twenty-first century workforce. It really seems to be resonating. And we're meeting lots of people, we're getting great ideas and we want to get those ideas out.

In addition, we want to keep plugging away on the Secretary's priorities. We want to do some good demonstration projects on distance learning. We want to help . We want to try and affect people as soon as we can. So, if we could do all of those things by December that would be terrific.

MR. LAWRENCE: Will the Initiative be helping other departments with the development of their workforce plans?

MS. HYMES: That's an interesting question. I am still in the process of finding out what other departments' workforce plans are, to be honest with you. There are so many rules and regulations out there, obviously, that we're still becoming abreast of. The Secretary is entering memos of understanding with different Cabinet agencies to better coordinate our efforts, particularly at our one-stops. At the summit, she announced a memo of understanding with the Department of Education so that there will be an educator at our one-stop centers, particularly for adults who need more reading or math skills. We're in discussion with the Department of Commerce to see how we can better coordinate training and job information. The Secretary will be meeting with other agencies on and on, OPM, as I mentioned, the Office of Personnel Management, being one of them.

Also, to try and coordinate the Office of Personnel Management has a lot to do with other agencies' workforce issues and we're beginning discussions with them, as well, and we will certainly try to coordinate and streamline and do all of those things. And at the very least, try and get good information out.

I think there's a lot of information or programs or projects that are out there that people simply don't know about.

MR. LAWRENCE: It sounds like, in our conversation so far, that you've been doing a lot to match or to supply the information about what's out there with people who are looking for jobs. But I wondering how you're working in things in, say, skill shortages, like, the technology area in terms of helping, you know, helping people maintain technology workforces. Is that something on the Initiative's radar?

MS. HYMES: Do you mean, helping people maintain their technology training or to attain technology training?

MR. LAWRENCE: Or to keep their people who are technology trained that are now in such high demand, is that also something?

MS. HYMES: Oh, well, you know, I'm sure that your listeners know that this office is not a catchall for everything. And, certainly, we're working in tandem with other agencies that are equally important and have more jurisdiction.

I think that this office is more concerned with helping people get new training, rather than helping companies keep those who are already trained. Although, what we're hearing is that sometimes the people who are well trained leave because of this idea of stress. This work/family issue is really very interesting. And I think that there's a lot to be learned and maybe that's one way that we can help because, if we get the word out regarding ideas that make employees happier or more fulfilled, things of that nature, then they'll be able to keep their workforce.

MR. LAWRENCE: Are there other such best practices for the workforce in the twenty-first century? You've talked already about the importance of the family, in keeping them going; you've talked about the importance of education. Any other early pronouncements in terms of the best practices?

MS. HYMES: Well, there are some terrific Job Corps centers that do wonderful things for kids that give them a lot of opportunities. There are excellent one-stop centers, I mean there are a lot of different agencies or different organizations within the Department of Labor that, in general, help people get training or help people find jobs, it's just that they do it sometimes in unorthodox ways. And they do it in original ways, and that's really a best practice. But the eventual attainment, as far as our office is concerned, is helping people get trained, get whatever sort of training they need and then get a job, that's our ultimate goal.

MR. LAWRENCE: How will the Initiative measure its success?

MS. HYMES: That's a good question. Probably by coming up with programs that help and we'll have to figure out how to measure how we help people. But, again, at the risk of being redundant, we're going to try and get better training to people. We're going to try and promote better access to training for people.

Perhaps we will come up with a successful demo project that will turn into a more permanent project, and that would be a measure of success. And in the small part, and I feel that this is a small part, although people tell me that this would still be very successful, in and of itself, if we only did this. But getting information out, apparently, is really, really useful to people. Everybody that I talk to says, people just don't know, they just don't know what's going on or we have no idea, the right hand has no idea the left hand is doing. And making some inroads toward people understanding or getting information out in and of itself would be a good goal for us to do.

MR. LAWRENCE: I was going to ask you; it's interesting you mentioned that last point. I was going to ask you what you thought the big challenges were and sort of technically solving the problem or managing the solutions in getting them out?

MS. HYMES: I think technically solving the problem is probably more difficult. And, again, you know, this training could not be more important to people. We hear that all the time. Companies are desperately looking for people who have training. And training is not necessarily technology training.

You know, we are not in the business of creating a bunch of computer technicians whatsoever. But people need , for example, community colleges are a good example of an institution that's training people. Not just our one-stops, although our one-stops are partnering with community colleges and you can go to a community college for a much smaller fee than a four-year college. You can go there for two years and you actually have a skill when you get out and private companies are partnering with the community colleges so that when you go to the community colleges, your skill is exactly what the company that's hiring in your town needs. So it could be automotive, it could be some sort of manufacturing, it could be retail. But the skills are very applicable and that's a very important point.

MR. LAWRENCE: Are there other models, I mean you talked about the community college and you've even talked about education at an earlier level, you talked about kids. But how far down is all this training going?

MS. HYMES: Well, our purview is really for adults. I guess teens 17 and above, but we certainly want to partner with the Department of Education and any other agency that's relevant. And, obviously, the First Lady and the President who are so committed to education at the youngest levels. I mean the best-case scenario is that you get it as soon as possible. But the people who come into our purview are at the older end. Adult illiteracy is also really a problem and, you know, that's something that we want to combat but, also, even if somebody has training, as Alan Greenspan said at the summit, you just can't be trained for one job and call it quits. In this new economy, you're constantly having to retrain.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with another little nugget in that brochure that I was talking about that said, between the ages of 18 and 34, someone graduating from college now can expect 9 different jobs by the time they're 34 years old. That's a lot of jobs that will probably demand a lot of skills that they'll need to keep regenerating.

MR. LAWRENCE: They'll need to regenerate skills, but they'll also need a set of core skills. Are you focusing on, say, the set of sort of core skills? You talked about literacy, I would imagine there's some management skills, are there ways to break those apart in terms of, you know, new technical skills you'll need versus sort of standard kinds of skills to exist in the workforce?

MS. HYMES: Well, there are standard skills that are called soft-skills. The most simple ones, like, you know, lunch really should only be an hour, you're really not supposed to talk on the phone all the time. That is a very, very important aspect, that's not something that I've been able to focus a great deal of my time on yet. But soft-skills is something that our one-stop centers focus on and our Job Corps centers try to teach and it's certainly an integral part of being in the workforce.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, this is a good spot for a break. When we come back, we'll ask Shelley Hymes, the Director of the Twenty-first Workforce Initiative, how or if our educational system will change to meet the challenges she's talking about.

This is The Business of Government Hour.


MR. LAWRENCE: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and today's conversation is with Shelley Hymes, Director of the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Well, Shelley, what advice would you give a young person who's interested in a career in public service?

MS. HYMES: I would say that it's a good idea that they should pick an agency, obviously, that they have a real interest in and maybe intern there first to see if they like it. And give it a whirl, either, you know, locally, statewide, or federally. Washington's a great city. So I think it's a good idea and they should come.

MR. LAWRENCE: What kinds of skills would you advise them to acquire, perhaps, while they're being educated?

MS. HYMES: A good knowledge of history, poly sci classes. Although there are so many interesting people that have done other things, you know, like, majored in English or French. I mean, there's a lot of room for a lot of good people in federal service. And just like any other industry, the federal government needs to be able to attract the best and the brightest, as well. And since our workforce is shrinking, I think that anybody with talent and care and interest is qualified to some extent. And there are so many different jobs to get involved with.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, speaking of the shrinking workforce, what are your thoughts on the impending retirement wave facing the public sector workforce?

MS. HYMES: It's a really serious problem and it's something that is part of that demographic section that our office is going to focus on. One of the issues that we're thinking about, that the Secretary is thinking about is the idea of older workers being mentors or maybe working flexible hours to help younger workers. And the older workers that we've spoken with seem to really like that idea.

And what I'm getting at is that it seems one of the things that we're seeing is that mentoring will be very, very important.

MR. LAWRENCE: How complicated will the changes you just imagine , even the one you just described be? It sounds as though laws are written that affect people's pay when they go back after they retired and maybe they were written when we envisioned people not being retired for long and now life expectancy is longer. So it sounds as though such a straightforward and obvious idea as you describe makes perfectly good sense until we begin to unravel the parts of the -- the layers of the onion. How complicated do you think all these things will be?

MS. HYMES: Well, it's probably complicated, certainly, from the federal level, but what buoys me or, you know, what gratifies me is that people are already doing it at the local and state level. I mean, the federal government is big an bureaucratic and, certainly, there are lots of rules and regulations that people need to be aware of and comply with but there are a lot of folks who just kind of do it. They just set their mind to it; terrific communities around thee country that figure out what they need and accomplish it. And I think that sometimes when they're less encumbered with this idea of oh, my God, we couldn't possibly do it, they end up doing it and that's that kind of information that I want to get out.

MR. LAWRENCE: How will technology change the workplace in the next five years?

MS. HYMES: Oh, I can't even imagine. I think technology has changed the workplace so fantastically already. I had mentioned that the Secretary and the President are very interested in the President's new freedom initiative, which is aimed at getting folks with disabilities into the workforce. That would be very difficult to do, even a decade ago. But with these new technologies, with email and telecommuting, and computers that can allow almost anyone with any disability to communicate and function; new technologies are letting a lot more people come into the workforce and I think it's just terrific. I don't know what's next, but it certainly has added a great deal of flexibility and connectedness and I hope and am very optimistic that new technologies will continue to enhance our lives.

MR. LAWRENCE: If we read the studies three or four years ago, they would have said that telecommuting will really take off now, and it doesn't seem to be, that's my impression. I guess I'd be curious if that's your impression, as well and, if so, do you think it ever will?

MS. HYMES: I have been speaking -- it's funny you bring this up -- with some telecommuting groups. And they have very interesting numbers. And telecommuting hasn't taken off as people had imagined, but it has grown four-fold, I think. I think the last number I saw was 18 million telecommute versus 4 million people 5 years ago or 8 years ago. And that's another situation where there are lots of programs that really try to get workers to telecommute. Statewide programs that give tax incentives and all sorts of financial incentives to get people off the road and to just, you know, give them some sort of flexibility.

The federal government has its own incentive for telecommuting. And I think that it's an idea that needs to grow. Sometimes people may be a little bit afraid of not being in the office or there may be some fears and when people get more used to it, but there are a lot of programs out there. I was just having this conversation with Russell on my staff that companies can really make some money by allowing their employees to telecommute if they're aware of what's out there. The rules and regulations and the state incentives, the federal incentives that they can take advantage of. And it's a shame, but a lot of companies just are unaware of what's out there.

MR. LAWRENCE: Are telecommuters -- I know you're just repeating the studies -- are they satisfied? Because I believe kind of what you said, which is -- people are social animals �

MS. HYMES: Right.

MR. LAWRENCE: And some feeling of that interaction that has a value that nobody can quite put a hand on, and while the technologies enable us to, perhaps, communicate face-to-face one day over, you know, these high-speed kind of things, it'll still never be the same if we can pop by your office and say, I have a thought and collaborate quickly.

MS. HYMES: Right, or meet at the water fountain. Well, I think that there are probably a million different ways of working it out. I mean, some people can telecommute part-time, some people will do it all the time. Some people won't do it at all. I guess whatever mixture works for you is the answer, but the importance is to have the options and then, of course, for folks with disabilities, perhaps, for older workers or for stay-at-home moms that only have different segments of time, teleworking will enable them to get into the workforce as we so desperately need, since our workforce is really shrinking.

It's not the be-all answer but the options are what are so exciting.

MR. LAWRENCE: We talked a lot about training. How do you think the education system and priorities need to change to accommodate the kind of things you're envisioning?

MS. HYMES: Do you mean the lower school education?

MR. LAWRENCE: Or at any level, it seems as though you've talked about e-learning and, yet we're sort of a bricks-and-mortar education system.

MS. HYMES: Right.

MR. LAWRENCE: You've talked about training that's going to have to take place in a lifetime and it seems by and large people are trained up until 22 or 23 �

MS. HYMES: Right.

MR. LAWRENCE: And they're told to go off. I'm just sort of curious if you've worked that through yet?

MS. HYMES: Well, here's the answer, Paul. No, one of the things that I mentioned to you that I'm really excited about and I have not fleshed this out enough, but it seems that, aside from distance-learning, which is a way that people can constantly retrain themselves, the community colleges seem to be a really good idea for a lot of people. I think the average age in a community college is 36. So, people really are, already getting retraining. And the other aspect of the community college, which I think is exciting is that they're very skills oriented. Most community colleges, you don't graduate with a two-year French degree, you graduate with some applicable, immediate skilled degree, is my impression and the president of the American Association of Community Colleges attended the summit and had some wonderful contributions with the Secretary and that's something that we're going to further investigate and have discussion on. But that is also another aspect.

I mean, I think distance learning provides an answer. I think community colleges provide an answer. I don't have all the answers, as I really need to remind everybody, we're just beginning. But those are two potentials.

MR. LAWRENCE: I've often wondered about even if there would be colleges in the future. Because if e-learning is as effective as one could imagine, would we even build these kind of things or send people away to central places to get the kind of education and training we're talking about?

MS. HYMES: Well, and it's also cost-effective, apparently. I think that it's the same thing that you were talking about with telecommuting. You cannot substitute that phenomenal teacher who takes time out and explains things to you. And that's what, I think, distance-learning people are trying to figure out is how to best create the program so that somebody can really educate themselves without any help in the room, because that's the hard part about distance learning. I'm sure that learning institutions will continue and four-year colleges, two-year colleges, I think people will want to attend.

It just, again, this idea of options. New technologies bring new options to our world, which is changing and evolving and it's global and it's exciting and options are a good thing. And access to options is something we're really working on.

MR. LAWRENCE: Okay. My final question is, how do you think the Initiative will evolve in the next five years? What's your vision for the future?

MS. HYMES: I hope that the Initiative evolves into an office that makes the Secretary and the President proud because it has fulfilled the Secretary's hopes and dreams of helping the workforce get more training and become more twenty-first century. I hope it's the kind of office that is constantly evolving itself and aware of new ideas and flexible and keeps up with the times.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, that's a good ending point, Shelley. I'm afraid we're out of time. I've enjoyed our conversation very much.

MS. HYMES: Thank you.

MR. LAWRENCE: Well, this has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Shelley Hymes, Director of the Office of the Twenty-first Century Workforce Initiative.

Be sure and visit us on the Web at There you can learn more about our programs in research and you can also get a transcript of today's very interesting conversation. Once again, it's

This is Paul Lawrence, see you next week.

Shelley Hymes interview
Shelley Hymes

Broadcast Schedule

Federal News Radio 1500-AM
  • Mondays at 11 a.m. Fridays at 1 p.m. (Wednesdays at 12 p.m. as
  • available.)

Our radio interviews can be played on your computer or downloaded.


Subscribe to our program

via iTunes.


Transcripts are also available.


Your host

Michael Keegan
IBM Center for The Business of Government
Leadership Fellow & Host, The Business of Government Hour

Browse Episodes


Recent Episodes

Dr. Trevor Brown
The Ohio State University
Executive Director, State of Ohio Leadership Institute and Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs
Loretta Early
George Washington University
Chief Information Officer
Professor Jim Hendler
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Director, Institute for Data Exploration and Applications and Tetherless World Chair of Computer, Web and Cognitive Sciences, Computer Science
Henry Darwin
Environmental Protection Agency
Chief of Operations
Michael McKeown
Department of Homeland Security
Executive Director, Homeland Security Advisory Council