RALEIGH, N.C.—President Barack Obama on Wednesday sought to push Congress to promote 21st-century manufacturing jobs by establishing hubs where universities and companies work together to invent, design and make new products.
The first such hub will be based at North Carolina State University, and the Obama administration plans to announce in coming weeks two more hubs, led by the Pentagon, to foster digital manufacturing and modern metals innovation.
The White House wants to establish up to 45 such institutes but that will require legislation from Congress so they are funded. The first three are being funded with existing resources.
Obama was expected to foreshadow part of his State of the Union Address during a speech at North Carolina State promoting advanced manufacturing, which many believe is key to an economy that offers well-paying jobs to middle-class workers.
“The country that figures out how to do this first, and the companies that figure out how to do this best, they’re going to be the ones that attract the jobs that go with them,” the president said.
The initial consortium will seek to invent, design and make new, more efficient semiconductor chips and power devices. Headquartered in Raleigh, it will receive $70 million over five years from the U.S. Energy Department and at least $70 million more from the universities, businesses and the state, the White House said.
“We have a great collection of scientists here and we’re in a part of the country, a hub in the United States, where a lot of this activity is turned into products,” N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said the project would create or sustain 1,000 jobs in its first five years.
The center would do little for the blue-collar workers who lost their jobs in the recession, but could prepare for the future as manufacturers continue a decades-long move toward robots and programmable machines that require higher education, University of North Carolina Charlotte economist John Connaughton said.
“The skill mismatch is enormous. It’s not the kind of gap you can close by going to technical school for a year or 18 months,” he said.
Still, he predicted a rebounding economy this year would recover all the jobs lost in the recession.
North Carolina manufacturing and construction jobs are expected to see the biggest boosts in 2014, a year in which the state finally sees a sustained recovery from the lingering effects of the Great Recession, Connaughton predicted in a report released Wednesday.
The consortium includes six other colleges and national laboratory. The 18 businesses taking part in the shared research and worker training include Cree, John Deere, RF Micro Devices, Toshiba International and Vacon.
Obama visited a Vacon research center and lab in nearby Research Triangle Park. The Finland-based company manufactures AC drives, which are used to control the speed of electric motors to maximize energy efficiency.
RF Micro Devices will fabricate semiconductor wafers containing an advanced mix of materials that researchers will use to increase the reliability and efficiency of how devices use electricity, said A.J. Nadler, the company’s general manager for power conversion devices.
“We want to make it a mainstream technology,” Nadler said, giving the company a headstart on competitors.
Obama’s visit comes as North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is also emphasizing manufacturing jobs in a state where about a fifth of the economy comes from making things.
There were promising signs in the past year of manufacturing’s place in a rebounding economy.
Computer maker Lenovo Group began manufacturing in the U.S. for the first time, choosing a North Carolina site over low-cost foreign locations such as Mexico or China because it meant quicker turnaround and custom products. GE Aviation broke ground on a new factory to produce engine components made of advanced ceramic materials that are ultra-lightweight and can handle extremely high temperatures in jet turbines.
North Carolina Republicans criticized Obama’s failure to fix the economy after the government reported just 74,000 new jobs nationwide in December and a dip in unemployment. They credit GOP state lawmakers and McCrory for contributing to a 2 percentage-point drop in the state’s unemployment rate in 2013 by cutting taxes and slashing regulations. The national jobless rate dropped last year by less than 1 percent.
“Gov. McCrory and the General Assembly have pursued an aggressive pro-growth, pro-business agenda that is already creating more jobs,” state GOP Chairman Claude Pope.
While North Carolina’s November unemployment rate dropped to its lowest rate in more than five years, the data also suggested worker discouragement. The total number of working-age residents either working or looking for jobs fell by 95,000 in the past year.
Hagan did not visit her home state with the president. Pope said she was avoiding being closely linked to Obama, who lost North Carolina in 2012, as a tough re-election race looms ahead of her this year. Her office said she wouldn’t be in Raleigh because the Senate is working.