Jill Biden shares Obama’s spotlight at Macomb college

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Warren — President Barack Obama stressed the importance of skills for blue-collar workers during a Michigan visit Wednesday that also offered a prominent platform for Jill Biden, whose husband is weighing a presidential bid.

Jill Biden joins President Barack Obama on Wednesday at Macomb Community College, where both made speeches. The joint visit comes as her husband, Vice President Joe Biden, considers a run for the Oval Office.

Obama and Biden, a community college professor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, urged the nation to boost investments in community colleges and apprenticeships — even as incomes lag and many blue-collar workers still struggle.

The presidential visit comes as Joe Biden is expected to make a trip to Detroit in coming weeks. Speculation is mounting over whether the vice president will seek the Democratic presidential nomination. His wife did not address the topic Wednesday, speaking instead about her goals as chairwoman of a new College Promise Advisory Board created by Obama.

Jill Biden, who said she graded papers on the Air Force One trip to Michigan, said community college has been a priority for the administration.

“From Day One, we have made education a priority — from investing in early childhood education to ensuring that more students graduate high school, to making college more affordable. But we’re not stopping there,” she said. Community colleges “have the flexibility to adapt and meet students’ needs. If we want all Americans to succeed in the 21st century, we need to make sure that all students of all ages have the best education possible.”

Obama and Biden spoke to 1,000 people at Macomb Community College, the site of the president’s first trip to Michigan after taking office in July 2009. He also made a campaign appearance there in May 2008 to tout manufacturing.

On Wednesday, he unveiled $175 million in grants to boost apprenticeships — including $11 million for three Michigan projects — and renewed a call for two years of free community college for students with above-average grades.

Blue-collar Macomb County has long been a bellwether in presidential races. Dozens of factories have closed in the past decade, and many factory workers have struggled to find jobs in a global economy.

“In places like Macomb County, you could feel secure knowing that if you worked hard you’d have a chance to find a good job, buy a home, raise a family, send your kids to college,” Obama said. “We didn’t promise everybody that they would get rich. But we promised that everybody that worked hard would have a chance to get ahead.”

Obama said workers must get skills to compete and warned it’s not enough to be strong and want to work. He stressed the need for college, apprenticeships or other training beyond high school.

“That’s the surest ticket to the middle class,” Obama said. “Education has always been the secret sauce, the secret to America’s success.”

The nation has lost about 5 million factory jobs since 2000. The percentage of U.S. workers in manufacturing — nearly one-third in the 1960s — fell last month to an all-time low of 8.7 percent.

Michigan had nearly 900,000 factory jobs in 2000, but then suffered through a nearly decade-long recession. In 2009, Michigan lost a quarter of all its factory jobs, falling to about 470,000. But today the number has rebounded to 598,000 — though many of the jobs are lower-paying than they once were.

Obama said workers must have skills to get high-paying jobs.

“It used to be you walked into an auto plant and you said, ‘Look, I am going to get to work on time, I don’t mind getting dirty, I’m willing to work hard,’ and that was enough.”

Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in an interview that the administration wants to boost apprenticeships — especially among women and minorities who haven’t always sought out such programs.

“Michigan got kicked in the gut,” Perez said. “We fall down but we get up — and (Michigan) knows how to take a punch.”

Obama also said pay isn’t rising fast enough.

“Some of that has to do with the fact that companies that are making record profits just aren’t sharing enough of the profits with their workers, and that’s a problem,” he said.

Obama spoke as the United Auto Workers union is negotiating labor contracts with Detroit’s Big Three automakers. He said U.S. auto sales are on pace to be the highest in a decade.

Before Obama gave his main address, he stopped at Michigan Technical Education Center for a 15-minute tour, meeting two students.

He noted the equipment used at the center is “almost identical to what is being used by the auto companies,” which helped design and set it up. At the end of a 10-week program, he said, there will be a job fair and students are likely to be hired.

Macomb is a good example of where, if community college programs are structured around the needs of employers, courses can be shorter and graduates can be sure they will get jobs, Obama said.

The president landed at Selfridge Air National Guard Base on Wednesday afternoon ahead of his visit.

Obama and Biden were greeted by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, among others. Also traveling with him were Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.

Obama shook hands with Duggan and Evans, then headed over to a group of military families and others, saying, “Hello, Michigan.” He shook hands and thanked uniformed personnel for serving.