Obama: We've Got To Move Away From 'Train And Pray'

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President Obama hosts a gathering of corporate executives at the White House Friday. He'll be encouraging CEOs to offer a second chance to job applicants, especially if they've been out of work for six months or more. Opening doors for the long-term unemployed is one of the ideas the president talked about in his State of the Union speech this week.


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. President Obama meets with a group of high-powered corporate executives at the White House today. He plans to encourage the CEOs to offer a second chance to job applicants, even if they've been out of work for six months or even more.

Opening doors for the long-term unemployed is one idea the president talked about in his State of the Union address. He's been calling attention to some of the other ideas with a four-state road trip that wrapped up last night in Nashville.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The president's road trip comes amidst encouraging signs that the economic state of the union is improving. A report from the Commerce Department yesterday showed the economy grew by 3.2 percent in the final quarter of last year.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We still have more work to do, but that's pretty strong. And our businesses led the way.

HORSLEY: But Obama knows many Americans still feel gloomy about their own economic well-being, so even as he shined a spotlight on successful businesses and workers this week, the president took pains to acknowledge those who aren't sharing the same opportunities.

At a Maryland Costco, for example, he cheered the retailer for paying wages that average more than $20 an hour, but also nodded to workers earning the minimum of just $7.25.


OBAMA: There are a lot of Americans who don't work somewhere like Costco, and they're working for wages that don't go as far as they once did.

HORSLEY: At a U.S. steel mill outside Pittsburgh, the president praised that company for its good union benefits.


OBAMA: But as everybody here knows, and I'll bet you've got friends and family who haven't been so lucky and don't have those benefits.

HORSLEY: It made for a somewhat mixed message throughout the trip. Behind every ray of sunshine was an economic cloud.


OBAMA: Even though corporate profits have been doing very well, stock prices have soared, most folks wages haven't gone up in over a decade.

HORSLEY: The president's prescription, which he outlined at every stop this week, is more and better-paying jobs. And he told employees at a Wisconsin engine factory yesterday part of the way to get there is making sure workers have the skills employers are looking for.


OBAMA: We've got to move away from what my labor secretary, Tom Perez, calls train and pray. You know you train workers first, and then you hope they get a job.

HORSLEY: Instead, Obama says the government needs to do a better job of tailoring its training programs so graduates have the skills employers need.

The engine factory hired more than 60 new workers last year, some of whom came through a job-training program that included classroom time at a local technical college and experience on the factory floor.

Duane Nichols, who's a veteran millwright at the plant, says it's good to see the company investing in a workforce for the future.

DUANE NICHOLS: They've opened up a lot of apprenticeships in here. So, I mean, that's a great thing, and it's a great place to learn. And there's a lot of opportunity here.

HORSLEY: Wisconsin's unemployment rate is well below the national average. That drew engine plant worker Terry Sexton there from Kentucky last summer.

TERRY SEXTON: Good job up here. Nice people.

HORSLEY: Filling factory jobs might take more than new skills, though. It also takes a new attitude. Obama notes at many parents discourage their children from pursuing work in skilled trades because they think a college degree is the only path into the middle class. The president joked that a lot of tradespeople make more money than graduates with art history degrees.


OBAMA: Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree. I love art history. So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

HORSLEY: The scaled-down nature of the president's agenda was evident last night at the final stop on the road trip: a Nashville high school. Obama was here to celebrate the school's educational gains, but he also met privately with the family of a 15-year-old student who was shot to death on the night of the State of the Union address.

Obama offered prayers for the victim's family, and urged students at the school to be there for one another. But gun safety - the issue on which the president invested so much political capital last year - was never mentioned.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Nashville.

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