By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
A University of Maryland dean whose career as a labor economist has focused on practical questions including local development and worker training will be in charge of helping communities harmed by the collapsing auto industry, President Obama announced yesterday.
As director of recovery for auto communities and workers, Edward Montgomery will be responsible for bringing leaders of unions, governments, companies, foundations and other groups together to devise strategies for economic recovery in the hardest-hit areas.
He will work with communities that face plant closings, using federal stimulus dollars and other funds to help create jobs and attract different industries and projects. The group also will try to offer worker retraining and extensions of health-care insurance.
Montgomery's post is part of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry, a Cabinet-level group led by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers.
The challenge is enormous. Since the economic downturn began, the auto industry has shed more than 400,000 jobs at automakers, suppliers and dealers, Obama said.
Montgomery began his career as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and worked for the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, rising to second in command at the department before returning to academia at Maryland, where he is dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. He also headed Obama's Labor Department transition team.
He has studied many topics, including whether workplace smoking bans reduce smoking by employees, how universities affect local labor markets and whether unions increase unemployment.
"He's not the sort of economist who views these as abstract problems," said Robert Schwab, associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. "This is a field that's important because it plays such a key role in everyone's life -- not just an interesting abstraction. That permeates all of Ed's research."
Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Ohio and Indiana "have been reeling for decades, and now they have this blow on top of it," Schwab said. With unemployment in Michigan at 12 percent and rising, "to pull this off you'd need a lot of skills. You'd best be able to listen, you'd best be able to make hard choices," he said.
The job is a perfect fit for Montgomery, Schwab said. "He's a real problem solver, terrific at bringing people together who are at loggerheads, and working to get a solution."
Montgomery could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Montgomery has been well liked as a dean, said Peter Cramton, a professor of economics at Maryland. He is able to balance competing demands and limited resources while inspiring people to do their best work, Cramton said.
"His office is right next door to mine. He's in a closed-door meeting, you hear gales of laughter," said Schwab, who will serve as interim dean while Montgomery is on leave.
Montgomery has been dean of the college, Maryland's largest, since 1990. Student protesters have pledged to walk out of classes Thursday to protest funding levels there. The college has an average class size that is nearly double the university's. Matt Lyons, a senior government and politics major, said the concern is with the university's allocation of resources, not Montgomery.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.