Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

Zach Gibson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

“The right solution is to properly equip the American workforce, not to try to hold back technology,” Ross said.

Ross, who made much of his estimated $2.5 billion fortune by buying distressed businesses, suggested that improvements to the community college system might be one way to equip young people and the middle-aged people “to be part of the workforce of the future.” More taxes, on the other hand, might handicap American business, he said.

Despite the shift of power in Washington, Ross’ comments came amid bipartisan efforts to retrain U.S. workers. In December, President Barack Obama’s administration released a report on artificial intelligence noting that U.S. workers displaced from their jobs have seen substantial and lasting declines in earnings.

Before taking office, President Donald Trump said he talked to Gates about the issue of automation.

“Right now we don’t make the robots,” Trump told The New York Times of his conversation with Gates. “We don’t make anything. But we’re going to, I mean, look, robotics is becoming very big and we’re going to do that. We’re going to have more factories.”

Ross said he would leave it to technology companies to determine the economic benefits of innovations such as space travel. But that doesn’t mean he has gone easy on the tech industry.

Ross leveled a hefty punishment against a Chinese smartphone company on Tuesday, saying he was “putting the world on notice.”

ZTE agreed to plead guilty and pay about $900 million to the United States to settle allegations that it violated American laws on selling U.S. technology to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. It has agreed to pay another $300 million, suspended during a seven-year period, if it does not hold up its part of the agreement.

“Industrial power is, at the end of the day, a national security issue,” Ross said.

— CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.

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