White House Forum Seeks Strategies to Put America Back to Work

With roughly one in 10 Americans out of work, President Barack Obama brought together 130 business leaders, entrepreneurs, labor officials, economists, and mayors Thursday to offer “fresh perspectives and new ideas” to place millions of unemployed workers on the payrolls of businesses large and small. Held before the release of Friday’s Labor Department’s November employment report showing that 11,000 people were pink-slipped last month as the unemployment rate eased slightly to 10%, the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth was the latest push by the administration to enlist experts outside the Beltway to tackle its greatest domestic challenge.

“I’m looking for specific recommendations that can be implemented that will spur job growth as quickly as possible,” the president charged forum participants who filled an auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Building. “I’m confident that people like you, who’ve built thriving businesses or revolutionized industries or brought cities and communities together and changed the way we look at the world and created new products that you can come up with additional good ideas on how to create jobs.”

The best and brightest were represented among attendees, including corporate powerhouses such as Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Disney CEO Robert Iger; leading economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz; nonprofit organizations heads including AARP CEO A. Barry Rand and Joint Center for Political Studies CEO Ralph Everett; Detroit Mayor David Bing; and entrepreneurs such as R. Donahue Peebles, CEO of The Peebles Corp. (No. 79 on the BE Industrial/Service list with sales of $51.4 million). During the gathering, participants were split up into several discussion groups and shared job development and business-building concepts in such areas as infrastructure, small business, green jobs, international trade and business investment. At the completion of these breakout sessions moderated by White House officials and cabinet members, the president re-assembled forum members to review potential initiatives that sprung from the sessions. Some included using funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, to spur job creation; initiating worker training programs through community colleges; and offering another round of business tax incentives.

A number of attendees believed the forum was a critical and useful first step. “I think there is going to be an emphasis on immediate job growth,” says Peebles, the only BE 100s CEO who attended the event. “I think we are going to see business and organized labor work together — one of the topics of our discussion. One of things we focused on was neighborhood economic development and [creating incentives for] small businesses to locate in those areas.” Another participant, Rob Carmona, president of STRIVE/East Harlem Employment Service, a participant in the worker preparedness session, says he now envisions “community colleges, nonprofits and employers coming together to train our workers — especially in communities of color” for IT and green positions. To get individuals working in the near term, however, his group proposed public works jobs similar to those developed during the Great Depression.