Why you should care

Because if you run a business or work in one, the decisions this woman makes might impact you.

“Disappointing.” “Stutters.” “Paler.” They’re not exactly words the U.S. secretary of commerce wants to see bolded about the economy in news headlines. Which may be why Penny Pritzker prefers to focus on what’s coming around the corner. That way, the swift talker can hope for the best — and also plan for the worst.

Since her swearing in less than two years ago, Pritzker has used her nearly three decades of private-sector experience to tackle issues facing businesses and entrepreneurs — and that, in turn, affect America’s workers. Think worries over stagnating wages, signs of emerging job sectors and countries that hold the most growth potential, as well as her stance on a hot-button political issue that could add more than $1 trillion to the future U.S. economy. Her edited chat with OZY follows.

OZY:

We’re at a time of lower unemployment, but wages for many have stagnated. How do you see this panning out?

Secretary Pritzker:

As unemployment drops — and we’ve seen it drop to 5.5 percent — the private sector keeps creating the kinds of jobs I think there should be. Supply and demand would say that wages should start to rise, and we’ve seen some sputtering signs of that, so I’m an optimist and believe that’s going to start to change.

OZY:

Where’s the strongest growth potential for new employment opportunities?

Secretary Pritzker:

There are 8.6 million Americans today who are working where data is central to their job, and those jobs pay 68 percent more than the average job. That’s an area of great opportunity.

Another area of growth is in manufacturing … whether it’s 3-D printing, digital manufacturing, lightweight or composite materials or photonics. A manufacturing job in America today is a good one, and it’s something that tends to have greater pay than the average job.

OZY:

And where are some of the most booming places in the U.S. that aren’t getting the attention they deserve right now?

Secretary Pritzker:

We talk about innovation in the Silicon Valley or in New York or in Boston or Austin. But as Steve Case — one of our Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship (and the AOL co-founder) — has really shown us, there’s a lot of innovation going on in places like Detroit, Cincinnati, Nashville and Atlanta, and in cities that don’t get as much press.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade event in Chicago December 18, 2014.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade event in Chicago on Dec. 18, 2014.

Source Andrew Nelles/Corbis

OZY:

Your department’s policy blueprint was guided by conversations with more than 1,500 business leaders and more than a third of Fortune 500 CEOs. What worries them about the economy right now?

Secretary Pritzker:

One of their biggest concerns is the slowdown in certain parts of the world. One of the things they’re excited about is that the U.S. economy is doing well, and they’re interested in making sure we’re addressing investments in infrastructure. The President has a proposal to use dollars that are repatriated from business-tax reform to invest in our infrastructure, because we have about $2 trillion of deferred investment there.

Other things I’m hearing about include comprehensive immigration reform. It’s really a shame we haven’t been able to get that done, not only because of the 11 million undocumented individuals, but also because we have a moral responsibility to people who live in this country, due to the economic loss — not just dollar loss but people loss, too. Comprehensive immigration reform would be worth about $1.4 trillion to our economy over the next 15 or 20 years.

OZY:

What’s their top concern?

Secretary Pritzker:

Probably the thing I hear the most about right now is trade and trade agreements. We’re pushing very hard; the business community wants to see trade promotion legislation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership both approved by Congress. Look at the fastest-growing economies in the world — they’re in Asia, where there are about 550 million middle-class people today, and that number is going to grow to about 2.7 billion over the next 15 years. American businesses want access to those markets, and we don’t have a level playing field.

OZY:

You’ve visited Ukraine, Poland and Turkey, and you’re the first Commerce Secretary who’s traveled to Myanmar. Which emerging powerhouse holds the greatest promise in the next few years?

Secretary Pritzker:

If we can get the Trans-Pacific Partnership done, I think there’s humongous opportunity for trade with those countries, whether it’s Vietnam or Japan. We’re working very hard, and I’ve been very focused, particularly in our relationship with Mexico and Canada to make the North American platform as strong as possible so that we’re globally competitive. And that’s not only making sure there’s ease of moving goods and services across our borders — that we have open sky — but it’s also that we have free trade agreements around the world so we can sell goods and services without facing market barriers.

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