Hilda Solis Interview

U.S. Labor Secretary, SPPD Alumna Hilda Solis Receives First Biller Award at SPPD

By Jan Peterson

Hilda Solis Hilda Solis, left, receives SPPD Biller Award from Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO
Photo by Tom Queally

When current U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, MPA ’81, looked for internship opportunities after her first semester in USC’s Master of Public Administration program, a Trojan alum pulled out his Rolodex and gave her names to contact. As a result, she landed an internship in the White House Office for Hispanic Affairs in the Carter administration — her first position in Washington, D.C.

Today, she heads the U.S. Department of Labor, the second largest enforcement agency in the federal government. The agency helps provide enforcement and protection for citizens in the workplace.

Immediately upon taking office in February 2009, Solis had to grapple with the grim statistic of Americans losing 800,000 jobs every month. She quickly began investing in training for “green” jobs and jobs in health care — two sectors of the economy that were growing.

Hilda Solis with Dean Knott and President Nikias Hilda Solis with USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Dean Jack Knott at the 2010 SPPD Alumni Guardian Awards
Photo by Tom Queally

“We had to do this rapidly,” she said. “We needed to build a lot of networks and gain support locally.”

However, Solis noted that there is some fear in local communities about dealing with the government. One of her primary concerns was how to engage people who had been critically underrepresented in terms of access to job training programs.

“Part of the process was building bridges and reestablishing ourselves as a Department of Labor that would protect workers and put workers first,” she said. “That’s a change, and it’s still hard.”

She undertook a comprehensive strategic planning process that reached out to members of Congress and into local communities.

“Listening to all the stakeholders is the only way I know,” Solis said. “People who do best in public administration are people who come in with an open mind, gather information, adapt to what you learn and make decisions.”

During Solis’ time as a graduate student at USC, she built close bonds with her classmates from the MPA program, which continue to this day. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to come to USC and be an alumna and be a part of this network,” she said. “Some of my best friends are from my program here. Those friends have been supporting me through much of my political career.”

Solis quickly added, “My classmates have done great, good things, too. They are making very significant contributions in whatever positions they hold.

“It isn’t just my story,” she pointed out. “It’s the story of all my MPA classmates. We are all working hard to make the world a better place.”

It is especially fitting that Solis is the first recipient of SPPD’s Robert P. Biller Award for Exemplary Public Service. The award is named after the late SPPD dean and longtime USC administrator Robert P. Biller, who was dean at the time Solis graduated.

Before his recent death, Biller commented on Solis’ ascent from community college trustee to congresswoman to the first Hispanic woman to hold a permanent cabinet post. He praised Solis for “learning how politics and bureaucracy and public policy issues work, and then immediately translating that to a very constructive career of action that has benefitted not just [her] constituents, but the rest of us.”

When asked what her message would be for current SPPD students, Solis said, “You’re going to keep learning and changing. You’re going to keep moving forward and adapt and learn new things. And whatever you learn, don’t be selfish. Share it!”

Before becoming a member of President Obama’s cabinet, Solis was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2009 serving California’s 32nd congressional district, which includes parts of the San Gabriel Valley as well as sections of East Los Angeles.