DURHAM — President Barack Obama visited the Triangle on Monday with some of the nation's leading corporate executives in tow, pledging to find ways to accelerate job growth in an economy where high unemployment continues to be a drag on the recovery.
The president heard from a high-powered business group that recommended a series of steps designed to create a million more jobs during the next two years - from deregulation, to speeding up tourist visas, to encouraging construction for energy-efficient projects.
"Today the single most serious economic problem we face is getting people back to work," Obama told employees of Cree, a Durham company that makes LEDs used in energy-efficient lights. "We stabilized the economy. We prevented a financial meltdown. An economy that was shrinking is now growing.
"But I'm still not satisfied," Obama said. "I will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers some security."
To help in his task, the president had with him a star-studded cast of CEOs of such companies as General Electric, Southwest Airlines, Eastman Kodak, Comcast, TIAA-CREF, Intel, American Express, DuPont and Citigroup, as well as cabinet secretaries and top economic advisers.
They are members of the Jobs and Competitiveness Council, which Obama appointed in March. This was their second meeting, and May's disappointing unemployment numbers - 9.1 percent nationally and 9.7 percent in North Carolina - seemed to add new urgency to their task.
The 26-member council, headed by Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, offered a series of recommendations address the level of joblessness.
Among the recommendations:
Do a better job of working with community colleges and vocational schools to train workers. There are more than 2 million open jobs in the United States because employers can't find workers with the advanced skills they need.
Graduate 10,000 more engineers each year mainly through the work of public-private consortiums.
Streamline permitting, making it easier to obtain permits for construction and infrastructure projects.
Obama praised the work of the council and said he expected to move forward on many of the initiatives.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been a frequent critic of the president, added its praise.
"The council has identified many of the most essential areas that much be addressed to put people back to work and grow the economy," said Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's president.
National Retail Federation president Matthew Shay said in a statement that the steps "will spur job growth and bolster the nation's economic recovery."
Glad to have a job
Just yards from where all the captains of industry were gathered, Josephine Lynch was working on an assembly line at Cree, just glad to have a job.
Lynch, a 43-year-old mother of four from Raleigh, had been unemployed for 21/2 years before she got a job at Cree two months ago. She had previously worked as a substitute school teacher in New Jersey.
She said her years of unemployment had been a struggle that she managed only with the help of family. She went back to school to get electronics certification.
"Keep up the good work," Obama said during a quick tour of the assembly operation with Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda as he shook her hand.
"Oooh," said Lynch, afterward, "I'm going to be the coolest mom on my block."
Cree has become a favorite drop-by spot for political figures, in part because its products are energy-efficient and because it has grown from a small group of engineers to about 5,000 employees including 2,000 workers in Durham. Obama visited the plant during the 2008 campaign, and Vice President Joe Biden stopped by last year.
This was Obama's first meeting of the jobs council outside the White House, and his choice of the Triangle had political implications. North Carolina is expected to be a swing state in next year's presidential contest.
The Republican National Committee said it was "more of a campaign event than actual substantive work."
It also criticized Cree because the company, which received $39 million in federal stimulus money, opened a plant in China in 2010.
"Giving speeches and soliciting advice from a council would be fine so long as the president was willing to follow up with concrete proposals that actually tackle the challenges facing job creators," said U.S. Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. "To date, President Obama has failed that test of leadership."
Among those in attendance were Sen. Kay Hagan and U.S. Reps. David Price, Brad Miller, and G.K. Butterfield, all Democrats. Gov. Bev Perdue drove with the president from the airport to Cree, but then left for Roanoke, Va., to participate with three other governors in a panel discussion with the Southern Growth Policies Board.
Obama was in the Triangle about four hours, arriving around 11 a.m. and leaving shortly after 3 p.m. All the events were private. He toured the Cree plant, met with the jobs council, had lunch at the plant and spoke with the Cree employees, before heading to Miami for a fundraiser.
Members of the jobs council on Monday morning fanned out across the Triangle and held hearings before local business groups in Raleigh, Durham, and the Research Triangle Park.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4532