Promised a lead role in keeping America competitive, Elizabeth Dole took office Monday as secretary of labor with a pledge to work to "assure that all of our people get their foot on the first rung of that economic ladder."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Dole said after being sworn in at the Labor Department, "we have a chance to fulfill a dream that every person in America who wants a good job can have a job if they have the proper skills."With President Bush and an array of VIPs - including labor leaders and her husband, Senate GOP leader Robert Dole - in attendance, Dole, 52, added yet another entry to her lengthy resume as the first woman in the Bush Cabinet.

The Doles make up one of Washington's most high-powered and witty couples. She served as transportation secretary and as a top White House aide in the Reagan administration and last year helped her husband campaign against Bush for the Republican presidential nomination.

A North Carolina native and former registered Democrat, she was executive director of Lyndon Johnson's Commission for Consumer Affairs and deputy to Richard Nixon's consumer affairs adviser Virginia Knauer. In 1973, she became the only woman member of the Federal Trade Commission and left that post in 1976 to help her husband campaign as President Ford's running mate.

Having served in four previous administrations, she accepted her new Cabinet post by laying out a five-point plan to ensure American workers "are the world's best trained and most highly skilled," develop policies "that make work and family complementary," guarantee a safe workplace and "sound and comprehensive" retirement programs and encourage labor-management cooperation.

"If we redouble our efforts without duplicating our efforts, we can assure that all of our people get their foot on the first rung of that economic ladder," she said. "And what could be more effective in the war on drugs and alcoholism, crime and poverty, than a good job?"

Bush, still hoarse from a cold that kept him confined to the White House on Sunday, said Dole will be not only his "top adviser" on labor issues but "a key policy adviser on my economic team."

Confident that "there is much to feel good about on the labor front," he said the department will have a key role not only in sustaining economic growth and low unemployment, but in meeting the demands placed upon American workers by "competitive forces" around the world.

"I can think of no one better qualified to lead the Department of Labor during this exciting challenge than Elizabeth Dole," he said.

Bush also used the occasion to underscore his determination to use the White House to promote "a new voluntarism" and to use the federal bureaucracy - an institution often maligned in the Reagan administration - to achieve his vision of "a kinder, gentler nation."

Much the same way he saluted senior civil servants at a ceremony last week, Bush assured Labor Department workers that although their efforts might at times go unrecognized, "this president does not take you for granted and never will."