Federal Auto Recovery Director Tours Michigan

In Michigan, where much of the state economy is tied to the auto industry, the jobless rate is among the worst in the nation. Now Ed Montgomery, President Obama's point man for helping communities hit hard by the problems in the auto industry, is touring Grand Rapids and Flint.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

New unemployment numbers came out this morning, and 539,000 jobs were lost in April - which isn't good, but still an improvement over the previous five months, in which business payrolls declined by more than 600,000 each month. The unemployment rate now stands at nearly 9 percent. In this troubled economy, no state has been hit harder than Michigan. For several weeks we've been reporting on how that state is coping with a downturn accelerated by the troubled car industry. Yesterday, President Obama's point man for helping communities deal with the loss of automotive jobs was in the Michigan. NPR's Don Gonyea caught up with him in Grand Rapids.

DON GONYEA: Ed Montgomery has a rather cumbersome title; he's the White House director of recovery for auto Communities and workers. And to a great extent, that means Michigan. No state has lost more auto-related jobs than Michigan. Montgomery yesterday began two days of meetings in the state, with a stop in Grand Rapids. He did not come with a readymade list of solutions; he said he came to listen.

Mr. Ed MONTGOMERY (Director of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers): To find out what's going on, on the ground. To find out how we as a federal government, state government, local governments can sync up our efforts to revitalize the Michigan economy and keep it strong.

GONYEA: That phrase - keep it strong - is hopeful talk, to say the least. Michigan's jobless rate is the worst in the nation - 13.4 percent. Yesterday afternoon, Montgomery took a factory tour at a small Michigan manufacturer called Cascade Engineering

GONYEA: This company does a lot of work for their car companies, supplying molded plastic parts for a variety of vehicles. Montgomery got a lesson in injection molding from Cascade founder and CEO Fred Keller.

Mr. FRED KELLER (Founder and CEO, Cascade Engineering): Are you familiar with injection molding?

GONYEA: Uh-huh.

Mr. KELLER: The material comes in pellet form, overhead, it runs through an injection unit which has a screw in it.

GONYEA: Cascade Engineering has been diversifying. It's trying to establish a foothold in the production of small, molded plastic wind turbines for residential and commercial use. It's a growing business, but it does not offset the big decline, some 40 percent on the automotive supply side of the business. CEO Keller says he wants the Obama administration to understand that if the U.S. loses manufacturing jobs and know-how, it's twice as hard to get them back.

Mr. KELLER: In manufacturing today, we are on kind of a reverse snowball. We're losing, not only capacity, but we are losing capability. And as you lose capability, you lose skill development, and as you lose skill development, you lose that drive to make that continue.

GONYEA: Now, Grand Rapids is not Detroit. It's on the other side of the state; it's a Republican area; it's got office-furniture factories and other industry. But it's still deeply connected to the car business. At a roundtable discussion with community leaders, Montgomery heard how the struggles of the auto industry are felt through a much wider community. Sue Levy is a local UAW official in Grand Rapids. She says in this region, most of her members do not work for the big auto companies.

Ms. SUE LEVY (Local UAW official, Grand Rapids): We represent a lot of suppliers, both auto and non-auto. We represent the county and the state employees, nursing homes, caregivers, firefighters, police officers, aerospace manufacturers, patio furniture builders - and the list goes on and on, and every one of them is impacted by the loss of these manufacturing jobs.

GONYEA: These business and community representatives want easier access to loans. They want streamlined and simplified ways to get government grants, more funding for retraining programs, and they want a way to keep auto operations in the U.S. and in Michigan. And even as the list of wants and needs grows, there is additional concern about what happens when GM shuts down assembly plants for the summer due to slumping sales. Governor Jennifer Granholm says that will mean a surge in joblessness in all of those places that are dependent on GM.

Governor JENNIFER GARNHOLM (Democrat, Michigan): That's one of the conversations we are having with Dr. Montgomery. And of course, if additional plants are permanently shut down, then we need to make sure we have access to allow people to bridge during this very difficult time.

GONYEA: Today, Montgomery continues his Michigan tour with a stop in a city that's no stranger to hard times, Flint.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Grand Rapids.

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