EXCLUSIVE Fair Trade is Not Protectionism, US Labor Secretary Says

On his first trip abroad, the US labor secretary is impressed with Germany's vocational training system and defends the new administration's tough stance on trade.
Another fan of Germany's education system. Picture source: Reuters

When Alexander Acosta was confirmed by the US as secretary of labor on April 27, President Donald Trump's administration finally was complete. His first trip abroad took Mr. Acosta, a Cuban American from Miami and the only Latino on Mr. Trump's cabinet, to Germany's south, where he visited a training center of carmaker BMW to learn more about Germany's famous dual-education system.

In an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt, the 48-year-old defended the new administration's policies on trade and its focus on rolling back a series of key regulations in hopes of creating more jobs for Americans.

"The idea of fair trade is we need to have a level playing field," Mr. Acosta said about Mr. Trump's controversial policy proposals of scaling back what he considers to be unfair trade deals. Critics have accused the president of promoting protectionist measures to seal his country off from international competition.

Mr. Acosta said certain measures could "un-level" that balance, without providing specifics. "What the administration wants to make sure is that in that process the American worker is not hurt," Mr. Acosta explained, voicing Mr. Trump's campaign mantra of 'America First.'

"And that is not protectionism. That is a country saying we have an obligation to our own individuals that when trading with other partners, trade is on a fair and legal basis."

Education has to be in concert with the employer because the employer knows what the workplace needs are. Alexander Acosta, US labor secretary

Mr. Acosta's trip to Germany included a visit to a Munich-based plant of carmaker BMW, where the labor secretary drew lessons for his own country from a program that sees firms coordinate with specialized colleges to train potential new employees.

"For me it was a real learning experience," the secretary said, speaking of an approach increasingly feted as a cure for youth unemployment and a way to match trained people to technical jobs.

"It's education but it has to be demand-driven education. It has to be in concert with the employer because the employer knows what the workplace needs are," he said of the program.

"In the United States what you see in some areas ... is a disconnect between the education and the workforce," Mr. Acosta said, adding that the way forward had to be a tighter connection between the two.

Not just in the United States, but across the G20 economies, the skills gap is a growing problem. Alexander Acosta, US labor secretary

A former US attorney in South Florida, Mr. Acosta faced less controversy than Mr. Trump's original pick for labor secretary, ex-fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, who faced fierce resistance from labor groups and consumer advocates.

But he still faces an uphill battle at a time when markets are losing faith in the administration's ability to deliver on key promises, such as a cut in the corporate tax rate. US markets on Wednesday had their worst day in at least eight months over fears related to an investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia.

Mr. Acosta was quick to play down Wednesday's market dive. "I think individuals love to try to make news by taking an isolated event and trying to make it into a trend," he said. "I think if you look at the trend over the past months, the financial markets have done quite well."

The labor secretary said the challenge in going forward was to get more people to participate in the labor force.

"Not just in the United States, but across the G20 economies, the skills gap is a growing problem," he said, adding that regulatory hurdles were also obstructing companies' hiring policies.

When asked about whether immigration could provide a solution to alleviating the labor force shortage, Mr. Acosta struck a cautious tone.

"The visa system, the H1B and the H2B certainly is a way to fill the gap. But we have Americans that aren't in the workforce," he said. "And so I think that the short-term fix ignores the long-term question, which is 'don't we have a duty to help educate our own workforce?'"


Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt's international correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected]