Expert says ‘dramatic’ proposals for workforce needed from Obama

Unemployment rate steady at 9.1 percent

Lansing State Journal

Written by
Louise Knott Ahern

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation this week to roll out new proposals for getting the country back to work, Michigan’s workforce experts will be waiting to hear something big, bold – and likely unrealistic.

“It’s going to take something pretty dramatic to make an impact,” said Doug Stites, CEO at Capital Area Michigan Works. “Private jobs drive the economy. But to stimulate the private sector to go forth and create jobs, it’s hard for me to imagine the government could do a lot.”

Obama will speak to a joint session of Congress at 7 p.m. Thursday. He’s expected to call for short- and long-term solutions to the nation’s lingering jobless woes.

The federal government’s August jobs report, released Friday, showed the nation’s unemployment rate remained steady in August at 9.1 percent as net job growth dropped to zero.

Michigan’s rate rose to 10.9 percent in July, with the Lansing area faring slightly better at 9.2 percent.

For the real people behind the statistics, such as 49-year-old Anthony Bethea of Holt, speeches and proposals aren’t going to cut it anymore.

Bethea recently was laid off for the second time in a year. While he tweaked his resume at Capital Area Michigan Works office on South Cedar Street last week, he said he’s lost confidence in the ability of elected officials to get anything done.

He voted for Obama in 2008, but he’s skeptical of the president’s timing and motive for unveiling a new unemployment package now.

“No matter what the president says, it’s not going to change anything,” said Bethea, who has experience in political and green marketing. “To me, it’s just a way to get something out there to get people to vote in 2012. It’s a political speech.”

Still, some say there are a few specific things that could help Michigan directly.

Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard said the best thing Obama could do to boost Michigan’s jobs numbers in a short period of time is to throw support behind the $2 billion Detroit River International Crossing Bridge.

The proposed bridge, which would be paid for by the U.S. and Canadian governments, would connect Detroit to Ontario and create an estimated 10,000 construction jobs.

The project is backed by Gov. Rick Snyder but has stalled amid concerns by some it would unfairly compete with the privately owned Ambassador Bridge.

“The construction industry has been hit hard,” Ballard said. “You’re talking 10,000 construction jobs paid for by Canada. And a bridge doesn’t get built in a day.

“There would be positive spillovers for the entire state because it would stimulate economic activity generally.”

Investments in job training and retraining programs also could help certain industries, said Chris Knapp, executive director of the Capital Area IT Council.

He said Obama should call for the reauthorization of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, which funnels federal dollars into programs that retool workers and match them with demand industries.

“There are jobs available out there,” Knapp said. “There is a huge demand for IT professionals with very specific skill sets, and there are opportunities for folks to come in at the entry level. Somehow we have to figure out how to get those folks back in the game.”

Obama’s speech originally was scheduled for Wednesday, but a tiff with Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s office over timing led to the date change.

Which reflects what some say could be the biggest obstacle of all – getting anything through a bitterly partisan Congress.

“I would be in favor of a little bit more fiscal stimulus,” Ballard said. “But I’m not at all clear whether this Congress would go for that.”