State News

Obama calls for boost to engineering training

Posted June 13, 2011 1:57 p.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2011 10:24 a.m. EDT

— President Barack Obama on Monday unveiled a massive engineering training program to help get U.S. manufacturing back on its feet after the recession.

Obama and members of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness met in the Triangle to hear from local business and university leaders and to compare notes on creating jobs that will put millions of unemployed Americans to work.

"Today, the single most important problem we face is getting people back to work," Obama said during a speech at Cree Inc., a Durham-based company that makes energy-efficient lighting.

The "all-hands-on-deck strategy," he said, would include incentives for students to earn college degrees in engineering, math and technology, public and private funding for university programs in those fields and more internships for students to gain experience before graduating. The goal is to train 10,000 people a year, he said.

"If we’re going to maintain our leadership in technology and innovation, our best companies need the world’s brightest workers – American workers," he said.

The jobs council also suggested other ideas to the president to boost the economy:

  • Training workers for advanced manufacturing.
  • Streamlining permits and red tape to boost construction and infrastructure projects and the jobs they create.
  • Making it easier to get a visas to visit the U.S. to create jobs in the travel and tourism industry.

Cree has demonstrated success both in engineering and advanced manufacturing, Obama noted.

He visited the Durham plant while on the campaign trail three years ago and noted with amazement that the company has doubled the efficiency of its LEDs since then while boosting its output and employment.

"You are helping lead the clean energy revolution. You are helping lead the comeback of American manufacturing. This is a company where the future will be won," he told a couple hundred Cree employees and area dignitaries in his speech.

Blanche Johnson is among the 1,000 people Cree has hired since 2008. She said she sees a bright future for company growth.

"What we are producing is high-volume. They are going to need more (people like) me to do that," Johnson said.

Obama cited successful engineering programs at North Carolina State University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a new engineering program at Southern High School in Durham as helping fill the pipeline for high-tech jobs. Only 14 percent of college students are now enrolled in science and technology programs, he said, adding that fewer than half will graduate with degrees in those fields.

"We must do better than that," he said. "If we’re going to make sure the good jobs of tomorrow stay in America, we need to make sure all our companies have a steady stream of skilled workers to draw from."

N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson agreed that the nation needs more so-called STEM students – those trained in science, technology, engineering and math.

Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric and chairman of the jobs council, said the group came up with “literally dozens of good ideas" to revive the sluggish economy and boost U.S. manufacturing.

“There are 2 million open jobs in the US,” Immelt said during a reception at the American Tobacco Historic District on Sunday night, noting the disconnect between the openings and the skills of applicants.

In addition to training, Obama also called for a focus on green jobs, such as Cree's energy-efficient LEDs and retrofitting older buildings with such devices to cut energy consumption and save U.S. companies money.

"Upgrading buildings for energy efficiency could save America’s businesses up to $40 billion a year on their utility bills – money that could be better spent growing and hiring new workers," he said. "It will boost manufacturing of energy-efficient products. It will put contractors and construction workers back on the job. It’s a win-win-win proposition."

Former President Bill Clinton will work with the jobs council on the Better Buildings Initiative, Obama said.

"These aren’t solutions to every problem we face, but they will help us move forward, and we are going to pursue them and any other good ideas, no matter where they come from," he said.