Job Training Initiative, Campaigning on President Obama’s Agenda in Prince George’s County

LARGO, Md. – Officially, President Barack Obama’s speech here at Prince George’s Community College on Thursday was billed as an effort to underscore how the college is partnering with local businesses to prepare people for the workforce.

Obama did that for several minutes by giving a shout-out to TeamBuilders Academy – a campus-based program that, among other things, got a half-dozen or so area residents into subsidized, $10-an-hour internships doing home weatherization work for an area construction firm that lasted six weeks.

But right after Obama proclaimed that he was “proud” and “very impressed” with TeamBuilders Academy’s partnership with Sustainable Star – a renewable energy and construction firm with offices in Maryland and Virginia – he launched into a political speech in which he extolled his administration’s energy policies as progressive and derided rivals who are currently vying to unseat him in November.

Much of the president’s speech focused on the economic pain that Americans are feeling at the gas pump—something that Gallup recently said is likely to influence his job approval rating in the coming months—and how alternative energy sources are vital to changing that reality.

The president urged a mostly, if not, an entirely enthusiastic crowd of students here not to believe the hype that other wannabe presidents are pushing as gas prices rise.

“Every time prices start to go up, especially in an election year, politicians dust off their three-point plans for $2 gas,” Obama said. “I guess this year we’re going to make it $2.50,” he said, evoking laughter in a thinly-veiled attack on GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich’s $2.50 gas plan.

“We know better. You know better. There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to high gas prices,” Obama said. “There’s no silver bullet, and anybody who tells you otherwise isn’t really looking for a solution. They’re trying to ride the political wave of the moment.”

Obama said that, despite what his critics say, under his administration, foreign energy dependence is at a record low and that drilling and American oil production are at a record high.

“I guess there’s a few spots where we’re not drilling,” Obama said. “We’re not drilling the National Mall. We’re not drilling at your house. I guess we could try to have like 200 oil rigs in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay,” he said, evoking more laughter.

“We are drilling at a record pace,” Obama said, “but we’re doing so in a way that protects the health and safety of the natural resources of the American people.”

The president’s comments were clearly directed at influencing the audiences’ political perceptions in the months leading up to Nov. 6.

“If you start hearing this ‘drill, baby, drill,’ ‘drill, drill, drill,’ if you start hearing that again, just remember you’ve got the facts,” President Obama said. “We’re doing that. Tell me something I don’t know.”

Obama said that, even if America utilized all of the oil within its territory, it would produce only 2 percent of the world’s oil while the country regularly consumes 20 percent of the world’s oil.

“You don’t need to be getting an excellent education at Prince George’s Community College to know that we’ve got a math problem here,” Obama said, urging the audience to support an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that embraces alternative energy sources, such as biofuels and wind and solar power.

The president said he wanted the instruments of alternative energy sources to be made in America. Obama urged the audience to call on Congress to end what he described as $4 billion in “subsidies” to oil companies, although debate continues about whether the $4 billion actually constitutes subsidies or benefits of various tax provisions.

“I don’t want to see (wind) turbines and solar panels made in another country by other workers,” Obama said. “I want to make them here in Maryland. I want to make them here in the United States of America.”

Obama’s remarks resonated positively among the campus at Prince George’s Community College, where students range from those studying chemical engineering to those simply trying to finish up what they failed to complete in high school.

There wasn’t much criticism of the president’s speech to be found, and, if the purpose of the visit was to influence voter perceptions and potential behavior, it was successful.

“I liked all of his opinions on gas prices and stuff and how we really can’t make a big difference (by drilling for oil in America),” said student Luis Nathaniel, 21, who is studying web technology. “His whole speech was pretty interesting.”

“How can you criticize someone who is trying to improve things?” said Eekiel Alaka, 29, of Nigeria. “What are you going to criticize?”

On campus, faculty and students could be seen wearing dark blue Prince George’s Community College T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Got Success?” on the front and “Can U C It?” on the back.

Given the school’s abysmally low graduation rate of 5 percent, the question is all the more critical.

As for TeamBuilders Academy, it’s still a work in progress, and finding business partners—something President Obama was supposed to highlight in his speech—is a perpetual challenge, said Jerome T. Countee Jr., director of the Center for Business and Industry Training in Workforce Development and Continuing Education at the college.

The job readiness program, which has served some 200 individuals since its inception in 2009, has provided participants with opportunities to earn industry specific credentials and the like, but data on the amount of actual job placements made through the program were not immediately available.

“It’s not a numbers thing for us,” Countee said. “Our program is fundamentally structured to be readiness based.”

Asked about the limited impact of subsidized jobs, Countee said that, even after the job subsidies are exhausted, the participants still have the credentials they earned through the program. Whether jobs await them is an entirely different thing.

Countee said there are plans to “scale up” the program and that it should be judged more for its potential and plans to move beyond construction and into other energy sectors, not only what it has accomplished thus far.