General Electric CEO To Head New Economic Panel

President Obama on Friday tapped Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, to head up a new business advisory council. The panel's focus is to boost hiring in the private sector.

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President Obama visited a General Electric plant today in Schenectady, New York. He saw, as he said, high tech steam turbines and all kinds of fancy stuff. But the main focus was jobs. The president was joined by the head of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, who will lead a new advisory board on job creation in the private sector.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: As he toured the GE plant in Schenectady, New York, today, Mr. Obama saw signs workers had put up showing where the gas turbines they were building would eventually go. The company ships turbines took Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And under a new contract, GE's sending three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of generators to Samalkot, India.

President BARACK OBAMA: Most of you hadn't heard of Samalkot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: But now you need to know about it because you're going to be selling to Samalkot, India. And that new business halfway around the world is going to help support more than 1,200 manufacturing jobs and more than 400 engineering jobs right here in this community because of that sale.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Hoping that other companies might learn from GE's success, Mr. Obama named the company's chief executive officer, Jeffrey Immelt, to lead a new president's council on jobs and competitiveness. The panel replaces an earlier advisory board led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. In making the switch, Mr. Obama signaled that while the U.S. economy has begun to recover, it's still not adding jobs fast enough to replace the millions that were lost during the deep recession.

Pres. OBAMA: The past two years were about pulling our economy back from the brink. The next two years, our job now is putting our economy into overdrive.

HORSLEY: It's doubtful Congress will approve any more big spending measures by the government. So the president is asking the advisory board to focus on ways to encourage hiring an investment by the private sector. Many U.S. companies have been sitting on cash instead of hanging out the help wanted sign.

In an op-ed column for The Washington Post today, GE's Immelt wrote: The jobs panel will explore opportunities to boost manufacturing and exports. As he told workers in Schenectady, those are both areas Immelt knows something about.

Mr. JEFFREY IMMELT (CEO, GE): We're a big exporter. Ninety percent of all the products made in this facility are exported outside the United States. So it's really a great example, I think, of what we want to do to really renew this country and this company.

HORSLEY: Immelt's appointment represents another olive branch from the administration to the U.S. business community. The Chamber of Commerce offered cautious praise for the pick, citing Immelt's business experience and his understanding of global markets. But the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which includes the Steel Workers Union, called Immelt a poor choice to lead the advisory panel, pointing to his opposition to Buy American policies.

The White House notes that GE has created new manufacturing jobs in the U.S., even as the company also invests in plants overseas. The company reinvests about six percent of its revenues in research and development. President Obama says that commitment to innovation is crucial to the economy's long-term success.

Pres. OBAMA: We're going back to Thomas Edison's principles. We're going to build stuff and invent stuff.

HORSLEY: The new advisory panel is tasked not only with encouraging job growth in the short run, but also boosting America's global competitiveness. Those are likely to be big themes for the president in next week's State of the Union address and for the next two years of the Obama administration.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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