Candidates Take on Workplace Issues

By Bill Leonard Oct 18, 2012

The presidential race of 2012 could go down in history as the “jobs” election. Both candidates claim that they are the best choice for strengthening the nation’s economy and their campaign rhetoric has focused on several key HR-related issues, such as workforce development, immigration, health care reform and labor relations. While improving the economy and increasing the number of jobs remain top priorities of both candidates, their plans to address these challenges and the impact on the HR profession vary widely.

A More Skilled Workforce

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney agree that more needs to be done to improve education and provide training opportunities so that students and U.S. workers can develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in today’s workplaces. Both candidates have pointed to a growing skills gap that has left employers struggling to find qualified job applicants. The candidates agree that the skills gap is creating a drain on the economy and is weakening the competitiveness of U.S. businesses.

Obama’s plan calls for more federal government investments in education and additional resources provided to state and local governments for hiring more teachers.

“America’s economic growth and international competitiveness depend on our capacity to innovate,” the president said during his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in September. “We must out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world to ensure that our nation achieves rapid, sustained and broad-based economic growth.”

If the president is re-elected, he has pledged to push forward new initiatives designed to improve K-12 education with an added emphasis on graduating every student from high school ready for college or a career. Under his proposal, Obama will set goals to graduate 10,000 new engineers in the U.S. each year and to add 100,000 teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 2015.

In addition, the president says he will continue to promote federal programs designed to strengthen and build public/private partnerships that link employers with community colleges and technical schools. With these partnerships, more businesses will work with instructors to create the curriculum and training programs that develop the job skills and knowledge workers need.

While Romney agrees with Obama that more must be done to bridge the skills gap, his proposal for workforce development takes a different tack. Romney’s plan would eliminate ineffective federal workforce training programs and consolidate the federal efforts into state block grants. According to Romney, these block grants would allow states to better coordinate job training and education programs with local schools and employers.

“We need to replace outdated federal policies and ineffective training programs that force employers to cut through miles of red tape,” Romney’s position statement reads. “My administration will help the nation develop a workforce ready for the challenges of the 21st Century and will make the most of our country’s human capital potential.”

Romney has said that he would support a system of personal re-employment accounts for unemployed individuals. Under this proposal, eligible participants would control accounts with funds for job retraining. Individuals would have the freedom to decide to enroll in community colleges or pursue other forms of technical and vocational training that would best fit their career goals.


As part of his plan to develop a more highly skilled workforce, Romney has proposed raising the number of work-related visas available to highly skilled foreign workers who hold advanced degrees in math, engineering and science and have job offers from U.S.-based employers. Romney and his supporters contend that these additional skilled workers would not take jobs away from unemployed U.S. workers and instead would fill job openings for which businesses struggle to find qualified candidates.

“The skills gap is suppressing the productivity and competitiveness of our businesses and slows the overall economy,” Romney has stated in speeches and media briefings. “Highly educated immigrants could help fill that gap and get our economy rolling again.”

If elected president, Romney has stated that he would work to establish a policy that will offer a green card and permanent residency to every foreign-born student who graduates from a U.S. college or university with an advanced degree in math, science or engineering. Romney and other Republican leaders say that they will reject any immigration plan that offers amnesty to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States illegally or under false pretenses.

Obama has pledged to work with Congress and enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Part of that legislation, he says, should include a pathway to citizenship. Obama has stressed that immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally must take responsibility for their actions and work “to get back on the right side of the law.

“Before they can get in line and become eligible for citizenship they will need to register and undergo national security and criminal background checks, and pay a penalty for entering the country illegally,” the White House’s position on immigration states. “Being a citizen of this country comes not only with rights but also with fundamental responsibilities. We can create a pathway for legal status that is fair and reflects our values.”

Obama agrees with Romney that reforms are needed to make it easier for foreign-born students and immigrants who earn college degrees to remain in the United States.

In June 2012, the president signed an executive order to end the threat of deportation for young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. According to the president, many of these younger immigrants have enlisted in the military, enrolled in colleges or have found good jobs. He says that these young people consider America to be their home and that many have worked hard and deserve a chance to contribute and make a life in the U.S.

Romney has called the executive order an overreach done in lieu of passage of the controversial DREAM Act. Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act if passed.

The president has indicated that if re-elected his administration would continue to hold employers accountable for breaking the law by hiring and exploiting undocumented workers. And he has said that he would seek to improve the nation’s employment verification systems and provide employers a reliable and easy-to-use way to verify that job applicants are eligible to work in the United States.

Health Care Reform

Health care has been one of the most hotly debated and contested issues on Capitol Hill, since Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010. Republican leaders have consistently called for a repeal of the health reform law and Romney has said that one of his first acts as president would be to sign an executive order that provides states a waiver from complying with the federal law.

Romney’s position statement asserts that, as president, he will direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services and any other relevant federal officials to return “the maximum possible authority to the states to innovate and design health care solutions that work best for them and their citizens.”

Romney says that his plan to reform health care and cut employers’ costs would push for more individual responsibility from health insurance plan participants. He advocates a system that promotes a private free market and provides consumers more choices in coverage.

Obama has countered that “Obamacare” was modeled on health care reform enacted in Massachusetts while Romney was that state’s governor, including the individual mandate concept that was originally favored by Republicans and conservatives.

Obama points to positive results already realized such as coverage of adult children under 26 and requirements for certain wellness services. The White House has indicated that the president is willing to work with Congress to improve the reform law and expand affordable health care coverage to all Americans.

Workplace Discrimination

Obama has advocated creating a level playing field for all workers in the United States. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation he signed into law when he became president in January 2009. In addition, he supports passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against workers based on their sexual preferences or orientation.

Romney and Republican leaders have stated their opposition to passage of any legislation that they claim would be hard to enforce and would impose new and burdensome regulations on employers.

Labor Relations

Obama has supported the long-stalled Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would ease the process of gaining union representation. He has made several controversial appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Several rule revisions and decisions promulgated by the NLRB during Obama’s presidency have been vigorously opposed by Republican leaders, and Romney has stated that, as president, he would work to reverse many of the NLRB’s recent actions.

Romney has stated that he believes in the right of workers to join or not join a union. He opposes passage of EFCA or any similar “card check” legislation and has said that, as president, he would push for passage of the Secret Ballot Protection Act. The proposal, if enacted, would require secret ballots in all workplace elections that determine union representation. In addition, Romney has vowed that any appointees to the NLRB during his presidency would support rescinding regulations that “distort federal labor law to accelerate the union election process.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.


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