For Nevada, Obama's Speech Has Major Significance

President Obama is slated to present his jobs plan Thursday evening. Among those perhaps most eager to hear the president's ideas are residents of Nevada, where the unemployment rate is the highest in the country. Nevada voters talk about jobs, the economy and their hopes for Washington.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: A couple of hours from now, President Obama will talk about jobs before a chamber of lawmakers who all have jobs, but of course his audience is much larger. Unemployed people across the country will be listening. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been outside of Washington talking with people who are sympathetic to Mr. Obama but struggling economically. He sent this story from a city where 14 percent of people are looking for work.

ARI SHAPIRO: It's no exaggeration to say that Darren Enns is at the bull's-eye of America's unemployment problem. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Las Vegas has the highest jobless rate in Nevada. And in Las Vegas, the construction industry has it worst of all, and that's where Darren Enns sits. He's with the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, an organization that coordinates all the construction workers' unions.

DARREN ENNS: When I say that we are upwards of 60 to 70 percent unemployment in the construction industry, in Las Vegas, you know, most people maybe think I'm overexaggerating, but I'm not. I wish I were.

SHAPIRO: Enns was trained to work in plaster. Since 2007, he has watched friends and relatives, the people he admired as heroes in the field when he was a beginner, now desperate to find work.

ENNS: They're on a rollercoaster that they can't get off of. And it's tough being broke, but it's even harder to not have any hope.

SHAPIRO: And do people have no hope?

ENNS: After three or four years, it starts to become where people have no hope.

SHAPIRO: Well, that brings us to the politicians who say they have plans to create millions of jobs. Does that give people any hope?

ENNS: Honestly, we've been hearing that for four years. My greatest desire would be for someone to prove me wrong, prove me wrong that there is no hope.

SHAPIRO: Unions are traditionally a foundation of the Democratic Party's base, but for construction workers in Nevada, the lifeline from Washington feels frayed and worn.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

SHAPIRO: A few miles across town feels like a world away. This is the next generation of workers. It's rush week at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Just outside the student union, fraternity and sorority members in color-coordinated T-shirts are recruiting. But even here, the unemployment crisis is real. Sam Shoemack(ph) is a senior political science major at UNLV.

SAM SHOEMACK: Everybody is worried about it now because nobody is hiring, no matter what your major is.

SHAPIRO: One student told me he's slow-walking his graduation, hoping to spend five or six years in college to postpone entering the job market until things get better. Another student, Johnny Dominguez(ph), is looking at law school out of state.

JOHNNY DOMINGUEZ: No one is going to want to, you know, employ somebody if there's no jobs, and that's one of my biggest things is to help out in the community here at, you know, Las Vegas. And if there's nothing for me to do, I can't - I have to take my talents elsewhere.

SHAPIRO: He thinks politicians in Washington could solve this problem if they really wanted to. They just seemed unwilling to work together.

DOMINGUEZ: I think the whole system is pretty much broken. I can't really say that Obama messed it up or I can't really say that the Republicans did anything. I think it just - over time it was bound to happen.

SHAPIRO: But even here in Las Vegas, the unemployment crisis is not universal. A year and a half ago, Jennifer Cornthwaite made the jump from employee to employer. She opened a downtown coffee shop called The Beat. And when she set out to hire people, she was shocked.

JENNIFER CORNTHWAITE: I have a really difficult time finding people that are really excited, really, you know, eager to work.

SHAPIRO: She says there's just isn't a match between the skills and experience of the people looking for work and the job openings that she's had. Bricklayers are generally not eager to become baristas. Cornthwaite, who describes herself as a card-carrying Democrat, says running a small business has changed her view of Washington. People think the president can fix big problems, but she no longer believes it.

CORNTHWAITE: They think that there's going to be a difference from like, say, Thursday when the president gives his speech, and Friday, we're going to all wake up and like something is going to change. But at the end of the day, you know, the next people come and go, and it's just going to be the people that are like getting up every day working, trying to make something better. That's the real change.

SHAPIRO: Tonight, President Obama hopes to convince Americans that Washington can still make a positive difference. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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