In his State of the Union address on Jan. 24, 2012, President Barack Obama outlined a legislative agenda and re-election campaign that focus on several key human resource management-related issues.
Obama said during his speech that the biggest challenge the country faces is keeping the American dream alive. He said that the U.S. can develop “an economy that is built to last” by offering equal opportunities and the promise of success to all U.S. citizens.
"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive,” he said. “No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot.”
Obama said that the best way to keep the American dream alive is to provide equal pay for equal work for men and women and to concentrate on ways to strengthen the U.S. manufacturing sector. He said prosperity and economic health depend on American manufacturing. He said that his administration will concentrate on bringing high-tech manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. According to Obama, the rising cost of operating overseas, especially in China, has changed the global business climate, and many outsourced jobs are rebounding back to the U.S.
“My message to business leaders is simple. Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed,” the president said.
Obama then proposed changing the federal tax code to eliminate tax breaks and incentives for outsourcing jobs overseas. In addition, the president suggested a basic minimum tax for every multinational corporation that operates in the United States. He said that every penny of this new revenue should “go towards lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here.”
A Key HR Issue
A shortage of qualified workers in the United States was one of the key HR-related issues that Obama discussed.
“Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do that job,” he said. “That’s inexcusable, and we know how to fix it.”
The president pointed to Jackie Bray, a single mother from North Carolina. He described how Bray was laid off from her job and then entered a job training program that was developed by Siemens Corp. and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte.
“The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training,” he said. “It paid Jackie’s tuition and then hired her to help operate [its] plant.”
The president said that it is time to streamline and consolidate the federal government’s confusing mix of job training programs. Business leaders and government officials must concentrate their energy on developing programs that get people back to work, he said.
“I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on people have one program, one website and one place to go for the information and help they need,” Obama said. “It’s time to turn our unemployment system into a re-employment system.”
The president challenged business leaders and educators to work together to train 2 million workers and provide them the skills that will lead directly to jobs. In addition, he proposed creating a Veterans Job Corps that would focus on connecting employers and military personnel who are transitioning to civilian life.
Education, the president said, is the key to developing the job skills Americans need to secure their success. The president challenged educators and state governments to commit to the objective of keeping higher education affordable for all Americans. As part of that commitment, Obama asked Congress to extend the tax credit for tuition assistance provided by employers. A permanent extension of the tax credit, known as Section 127, has long been a key legislative issue for business-related groups like the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Higher education can’t be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford,” he said.
Keeping Skilled Workers in the U.S.
The president then turned his attention to immigration reform. He said it didn’t make sense to have talented, intelligent and hard-working students come from all over the globe to get an education at American colleges and then be sent home after graduation because of outdated U.S. immigration laws.
“We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election year politics keep Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses and defend this country,” he said. “Send me a law that gives them a chance to earn their citizenship, and I will sign it right away.”
The president’s proposal to reform federal law and make it easier for highly educated immigrants to stay and work in the U.S. was applauded by several business groups after his speech.
“America’s 21st century economy demands a workforce that is trained in the skills that will drive economic growth, job creation and innovation far into the future,” said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel. “Increasing the domestic pipeline of talent is a must. So too is allowing top world talent—especially those educated in our universities in business, science and engineering, as President Obama said—to stay in America and contribute to U.S. growth.”
Obama’s speech, however, was criticized by Republican leaders as just more of the same policies and ideas that the president has promoted since taking office in January 2009.
The address “was more of the same from the Obama administration,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., chairman of the House Small Business Committee. “Growing a larger Washington, blaming others, raising taxes and dividing our nation among classes will not create long-term, sustainable growth in the economy or job market. I agree that small businesses need regulatory and tax relief, but the president’s proposals to date have been just the opposite.”
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.