WASHINGTON -- In a State of the Union speech focused tightly on jobs and the economy, President Barack Obama outlined his ideas for getting long-term unemployed workers back to work and closing the "skills gap" separating jobless Americans from employers who have positions to fill.
In a speech setting his presidential agenda for 2012 -- as well his burgeoning re-election campaign -- Obama put forth policies that he said would "restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot," calling for more job training for young or unemployed workers as well as reforms to the unemployment insurance system.
"We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits," the president said. "I want to speak about how we move forward and lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last -- an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values."
To aid the unemployed, Obama proposed a new initiative to train and place 2 million workers in jobs through partnerships with businesses and community colleges, based on existing programs in cities like Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Orlando and Louisville, Ky. Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told HuffPost that Steve Jobs, the legendary and recently deceased figurehead of Apple, urged Obama to put forth such proposals in a past meeting of the two men. Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the speech.
In his speech, Obama cited the experience of Jackie Bray, a single mom in North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. "Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College," Obama said. "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."
Additionally, Obama said he'd simplify government-sponsored training programs -- something that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also proposed. "I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website and one place to go for all the information and help they need," the president said. "It's time to turn our unemployment system into a re-employment system that puts people to work."
The president also proposed "eligibility assessments" for long-jobless workers applying for emergency federal unemployment insurance. He did not mention the Bridge to Work program he had proposed during an address to a joint session of Congress last September.
During the lasting jobs crisis, long-term unemployed workers have been hit particularly hard, with many still unable to find jobs even after exhausting their unemployment benefits. More than 13.1 million people were unemployed in December, according to the Labor Department, and an unprecedented 42.5 percent of them had been out of work for six months or longer. Nearly 2 million people have been unemployed longer than 99 weeks, beyond the reach of unemployment insurance. But the president pointed to more positive numbers.
"In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs," Obama said. "Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s."
Economists and worker advocates say people out of work for an extended period have a harder time landing new jobs, and they may ultimately wind up burdening another part of the safety net once their unemployment insurance runs out. "The long-term unemployed are concerned that they're less employable because they've been out of the workplace a couple of years," says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO union federation. "People do need to be trained, and we need to make sure that long-term unemployment doesn't mean never being employed again."
The White House said in a December report that applications for Social Security disability payments increased among people older than 50 who would soon exhaust their unemployment insurance.
Obama mentioned the anxiety of older workers who lose their jobs -- while touting the renewable energy industry. "When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance," Obama said. "But he found work at Energetx, a wind-turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession, the factory only made luxury yachts. Today, it's hiring workers like Bryan, who said, 'I'm proud to be working in the industry of the future.'"
In recent years economists have been debating how best to address the American "skills gap," discussing the idea that many Americans simply don't have the advanced manufacturing and technological skills required for the better-paying working-class jobs that remain in the United States. Although not everyone agrees that this wide gap exists -- economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, notably, has deemed "structural unemployment" a "fake problem" -- some employers and their allies have insisted that they have skilled positions they'd like to fill but simply can't find the right American workers for them. Many of those same employers would surely like to see government step in and provide some of the necessary training.
In his speech, the president said he hears "from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that -- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work."
If nothing else, Obama's speech Tuesday could help make job training part of the mainstream dialogue, says Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of the National Skills Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for publicly funded job training.
"President Obama has tried several times over the past couple of years to increase our investments and training for workers," says Van Kleunen. "Finally, we're going to get a clear national debate about where the skills gap is, and how to deal with unemployment together with it."