Business leaders to Obama: We need more skilled workers and less uncertainty

Ever heard of a "vanadium redox fuel cell"? Well, neither has President Obama, speaking at a small business forum in Cleveland, but that hasn't stopped it from being one of the coolest things he's ever said out loud.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 5:53 PM

A group of business leaders told President Obama Thursday that uncertainty in the broader economy and a lack of skilled workers were major barriers to reducing unemployment.

The 22-person Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which Obama created last month to advise him on economic issues, talked with the president for just over an hour at the White House in its first meeting. The president spent most of the session, part of which was webcast, simply listening to council members.

"The biggest challenge, even though there is huge unemployment, we don't find skilled labor," said Darlene Miller, who is the chief executive of Permac Industries, a Minnesota-based machining company. "We don't really have any unskilled labor jobs."

Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express, said uncertainty about the how much the economy was rebounding from the recession was making employers reluctant to hire new employees.

These comments are familiar to the president, who has heard them often in his two years as president, particularly during his increased outreach to businesses in the last several months. He told the council that his administration is already providing more money to community colleges, reducing regulation and making other moves to aid businesses.

He said he hopes the group, which will meet each quarter, comes up with concrete ideas to create jobs.

"I'm not interested in photo ops and I'm not interested in more meetings," he said the start of the meeting. "I've got enough photo ops and enough meetings. I have a surplus of that. So I expect this to be a working group in which we are coming up with some concrete deliverables."

The carefully selected group includes some longtime Obama allies, such as Penny Pritzker, chief executive of Pritzker Realty and the president's national finance chairwoman in 2008, as well as occasional critics. They include Intel chief executive Paul S. Otellini, who suggested last year that the White House didn't understand the economy. (He was more supportive when Obama visited an Intel plant last week.)

The panelists are mostly people from the business world, but also includes two union leaders, two economists and Monica C. Lozano, who runs a major Spanish-language newspaper called La Opinión. (Here's a list of the members.)

Several of the members served on a panel that this new council is replacing: the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which operated from 2009 to early this year and was chaired by ex-Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. But that panel had limited influence, and White House officials have said this new group will have more meetings with Obama than Volcker's group did.

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