The Andrew W. Mellon auditorium was transformed Monday into a space-age conference center, with Microsoft Kinect-powered interactive tables and wall displays featuring the latest developments in GE’s product base — everything from turbines to appliances and health care equipment.
The gathering, convened to address the nation’s competitiveness and innovation economy, also gave one of the nation’s oldest companies a chance to advertise the latest developments in not only its technological innovation, but where it stands on job creation and worker training.
General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt kicked off the event summarizing GE’s overall strategy for growth and job creation.
“Competition requires confidence,” said Immelt on U.S. competitiveness, “I can tell you that I’m probably more confident today than any other time I can remember.”
But the United States shouldn’t expect to be the only apple of GE’s job growth eye.
“If you’re going to grow globally,” said Immelt, “you have to create jobs in other countries, not just the United States.”
Immelt balanced this message of the need for global competitiveness and job creation with one centered around the need to reenergize the nation’s manufacturing sector, attempting to strike a balance between a globally competitive outlook while still hewing to GE’s long, American roots.
“There’s a good case to be made for the competitiveness of American manufacturing than in previous decades,” said Immelt, citing the declining cost of labor relative to the rising cost of materials. Today, according to Immelt, materials had replaced labor as the largest cost on corporate balance sheets, providing an incentive for the company to move jobs from outside the United States, specifically Mexico, back to the United States.
“Maybe the most straightforward way to create jobs is to fill the jobs that are open today,” continued Immelt, citing a lack of “the right skills” as the reason jobs go unfilled.
“Other subjects are easier, let’s face it,” said Immelt, citing high dropout rates for aspiring engineers in U.S. undergraduate programs. Incentivizing students through internships was, according to Immelt, one way to keep kids on the engineering track. GE typically hires 2,500 engineers every summer, and, according to Immelt, the company anticipates doubling that number this year. The company has also committed to hiring 5,000 veterans over the next five years.
Immelt also used the opportunity to address a series of core pillars of growth in the U.S. economy from his perspective, including health care, energy, middle market company success, job training, self-directed team creation and public-private partnerships.
“The private sector drives jobs,” said Immelt, “but the government can provide a catalyst.”
But that catalyst has two faces: Federal and state. “There are 50 different experiments that happen in 50 different states,” he continued, citing the need to navigate both federal and state incentives to spur business growth. “Business and government working together helps create competitiveness.”
“We certainly don’t know all the answers,” admitted Immelt, “but we’re ready to learn.”
The GE conference, “American Competitiveness: What Works,” will continue through Thursday and features guest speakers from some of the nation’s leading companies, including Dow and Boeing and lawmakers, such as Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
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