As President Obama summoned industry and academic leaders to the White House for his Jobs Summit Thursday afternoon, laid-off Ameriprise analyst Phil Ekstrand and others from an AFL-CIO affiliate held their own roundtable in Minneapolis to brainstorm ways to get back to work.
"The job search has been difficult. It's been tough emotionally," said Ekstrand, who was let go a year ago and has yet to find work. A few weeks ago he applied for a new job opening at Ameriprise, along with 700 other people. To get by, he sold his house in August, cuts his own hair and buys generic brands of applesauce, cereal and tomato sauce for himself and his daughter.
Now the divorced father from Minneapolis wants Obama to funnel stimulus money into more home buyer tax credits and into the development of renewable fuels. That should create U.S. jobs and reduce reliance on overseas oil, he said.
"Use our technology to stimulate the economy. People are ready to get back to work," Ekstrand said wearily, noting that his 5-year-old recently asked, "Why don't you have a job, Daddy?"
The AFL-CIO and its affiliate, Working America, duplicated its Minneapolis roundtable across the country Thursday in cities such as Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, Albuquerque, N.M., and Sacramento, Calif. The goal was to give laid-off workers a voice in the Obama summit and spur leaders to action.
Obama's jobs summit provoked hearty response from around the country as the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Google, job placement agencies and welfare advocates sought to contribute to job-creation efforts. They noted that road and highway projects, window replacements and other energy rebates are efforts either in full swing or winding down.
Roundtable suggestions for fresh job-creation efforts included green building projects, tax credits for employers who are hiring and the end of big federal bailouts for corporations. Economists separately noted that only about a third of the federal $787 billion stimulus funds have been spent. The White House is hoping for more job-creation efforts from the private sector to help shrink the U.S. unemployment rate.
Scott Paul, executive director of the manufacturing alliance, praised the White House effort, saying it's "a critical time for the nation's factory workers," who have lost 5 million jobs and seen 51,000 plants close over 10 years. "The manufacturing sector experienced a staggering 566 mass-layoff events in October 2009 alone," Paul said.
In Minnesota, representatives of Working America sought to keep the spotlight on workers. "This roundtable discussion is another way to remind people that the back of this country is the working class and to make sure their voices are heard and that elected officials are working for them," said Lynne Bolton, a director Working America Twin Cities.
Liz Freeberg, an unemployed Circle Pines yarn saleswoman, said she applied for 45 jobs over six months but snagged only one interview. She didn't get that job. Her mother is helping to support her and three special-needs kids while her husband finishes nursing school. Freeberg wants more tax credits for local green building projects and insists that the government's focus has to shift from corporate bailouts to small businesses. "That's how you stimulate the economy," she said.
Ekstrand and Freeberg are among the 110,000 Minnesotans who lost jobs since October 2008, bringing the state's jobless rate to 7. 6 percent. The national unemployment rate hit 10.2 percent in October.
The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday that seasonally adjusted first-time unemployment claims fell by 5,000 to 457,000 for the week ending Nov. 28. The moving four-week average on new claims for unemployment fell by 14,250 to 481,250.
Still, John Challenger, CEO of the global job outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, praised the fact that the White House was again focusing on jobs. "After taking a back seat to health care reform and the Afghanistan strategy, the economy returns to the spotlight today," he said. "Of course, the biggest issue that the summit will need to address is how to ignite hiring, which remains woefully slow, too slow to offset the jobs being lost to downsizing."
Rudy Martinez, a pipe insulation contractor from Vadnais Heights, was laid off last Wednesday from the Flint Hills Refinery job he held for only four weeks. Of his 50 co-workers, only 10 will be left after another wave of cuts comes next week, he said. Some have already headed down to Kansas City, where there is some work, albeit at $4 an hour less than in Minnesota, he said.
While he figures out what to do next, Martinez has a message for the president: "I would tell Obama that the Cash for Clunkers program was great. The only flaw was that he should have said the cash has to go toward cars made in America."
Robert Christensen, a Working America member from St. Louis Park, agreed. "I would tell Obama: No more outsourcing of jobs."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725