Minnesota educators, small business owners and manufacturers listened carefully to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday to learn what’s in it for them.
Small businesses said they want Obama to kill talk of raising taxes on the wealthy. Manufacturers want better-educated workers. And educators said they want Obama to boost federal financial aid for students. Everyone insisted they were tired of the gridlock and wanted Obama and Congress to get on with their jobs.
Kevin Kopischke, president of Alexandria Technical and Community College, had an up-front seat to Obama’s speech, thanks to an invitation by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn).
“I am very honored to be here,” said Kopischke, who has been front and center in efforts to combat Minnesota’s growing job-skills gap. His college in Alexandria, Minn., and community colleges across the country are trying to train both older workers and fresh-faced students so they have the technical skills demanded by today’s high-tech factories. Still there are shortages.
So, Obama needs to address two problems, Kopischke said. Young people are not attracted to manufacturing because U.S. high schools no longer offer the vocational and technology classes that were common in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The other problem is that state tuition grants have dwindled in recent years. That makes it cost prohibitive for many workers to update technical qualifications needed in today’s robot-filled factories.
“Minnesota State Colleges and Universities now receive 48 percent less per student than in 2000,” Kopischke said. “The state of Minnesota has decided to disinvest and that has resulted in more students sharing a higher cost of tuition.” The same problem exists in other states.
To combat that, Obama should increase federal Pell grants for students wanting to attend two-year and technical colleges, he said. “If indeed our policy makers are serious about solving the skills gap or making sure that we have a workforce that is ready to meet the demands of this global economy, we need people who are trained.”
During his speech,Obama touched on many themes near and dear to Kopischke's heart. Obama urged states to reign in tuition costs and asked Congress to help expand job-training and job creating partnerships between technical and community colleges and corporations. Such partnerships turn unemployment into "reemployment," he said.
As an example, Obama talked about Jackie Bray, a single mother and mechanic in North Carolina who was laid off from her job. "Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did," Obama said.
He then asked Congress to "Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job...You need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers - places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing," Obama said.
Bob Kill, CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, said Obama's message addressed a topic that is important to his clients. The job skills gap is the loudest complaint he hears from the 200 small and mid-sized manufacturers Enterprise Minnesota advises.
Many of Kill's clients have job openings, but can’t fill them because applicants lack the right skill set, Kill said. Many try to work with local technical colleges to attract and train new workers. But finding interested young folks is hard. Many avoided manufacturing after 10 turbulent years of cost cutting, layoffs, and new technologies that require greater know-how but fewer workers.
In addition to job training, Kill said he wants Obama and the Congress to improve the tone in Washington.
“What we really need is some action: to get [the country] moving; get rid of the polarization; and make some decisions and move on,” Kill said. “It’s more of the uncertainty in the economy that affects [our clients’] business decisions than other individual topics out there.”
In a recent survey of 400 Minnesota manufacturers, Enterprise Minnesota found that manufacturers are trying to tap more local suppliers who can deliver smaller orders faster without the huge energy costs and delays that come with overseas shipping.
That could help Obama’s jobs agenda. He again pledged a jobs creation proposal to put people to work building bridges, roads and other infrastructure projects. He asked Congress to fund the initiative using some of the money no longer being used to support U.S. troops in Iraq. The money should instead be used on "nation-building right here at home," Obama said.
Republicans largely rejected the effort, saying it was too spendy, too short term and too risky when the nation faces unprecedented levels of debt.
Small business owners have taxes at the top of their agenda.
Officials at The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which has 350,000 members including about 13,000 in Minnesota, said they wanted Obama to back off his pledge to raise taxes on the wealthy.
They did not get what they wanted. Obama insisted Tuesday that American's making more than $1 million a year should be taxed at a 30 percent rate.
NFIB members and Republicans balked.
NFIB spokeswoman Jean Card said many NFIB members set up subchapter S corporations or limited liability firms and pay taxes at the individual rate, even though they reinvest most of the income into the business. They could be unfairly burdened should Obama's plan see the light of day.
Obama “should show them that he understands and appreciates the fact that small-business owners file their taxes not as corporations, but at individual rates. So individual rates matter and shouldn’t be raised,” said Dan Danner, the federation’s CEO.
Small businesses also worry about extensive government regulations. Obama “could, and should, pledge to shut down, really shut down, the regulatory onslaught that has made the cost of doing business a moving target,” Danner said.