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Obama pushes to expand high-tech manufacturing during Pittsburgh visit

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 7:00 a.m.
Andy Leer shows President Obama how a 3-D printer works on Tuesday, June 17, 2014, during the president's tour of TechShop in Bakery Square in Larimer.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Andy Leer shows President Obama how a 3-D printer works on Tuesday, June 17, 2014, during the president's tour of TechShop in Bakery Square in Larimer.

A globalized economy buffeted by constant advances in technology wiped out the stability that previous generations relied on but presents opportunities for people who want to add jobs rather than find them, President Obama said on Tuesday in Larimer.

Obama toured high-tech workstations at TechShop in Bakery Square, where people pay a membership fee to work with equipment too expensive for most small businesses to own. He took questions from several of the about 80 members who attended the town hall-style event, which he scheduled to announce a set of initiatives designed to support manufacturing startups.

“Part of what's interesting at this moment in our economy is also what's scary about it. Very few people are going to live and work in one company for 30 years,” Obama said. “That model doesn't exist. There's just too much disruption, because technology moves too quickly, and globalization moves too quickly.”

TechShop, which has eight locations across the country and is planning to open two more, trains workers on modern manufacturing machines and offers entrepreneurs access to software and equipment to rapidly produce prototypes.

Training on an industrial sewing machine at TechShop helped Jean Frye, 59, of Ross boost her salary at David's Bridal, where she found a job after 18 years as a stay-at-home mother. Still, she's concerned about the future, as global competition holds down wages for jobs like hers.

“I worry, ‘Am I going to have to work until I'm 75 years old?' ” Frye said.

Obama announced commitments from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and 89 other mayors to open more spaces like TechShop and said he'll make $5 billion worth of federal equipment available at research centers including NASA facilities and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He plans to reallocate $150 billion to the Materials Genome Initiative, a federal effort aimed at cutting in half the time it takes to invent, produce and market advanced materials.

Technology such as 3-D printers and other equipment that can be operated with little training makes it possible for people to start a business without the large investments that new manufacturing ventures used to need, several TechShop members told Obama on his tour.

“We're at a point where a person can have an idea at breakfast and a prototype by lunch,” Eliot Kahn, who works at TechShop, told Obama during his tour. Kahn showed Obama the type of injection molding machine that helped the inventors of the mobile payment device Square sell their idea and get startup funding for what has become a $5 billion company.

The overall economic effect of the initiatives Obama announced is likely to be marginal, however, because advanced research and development jobs go to skilled workers, most of whom have college degrees and can find work, said Matthew Rousu, associate professor of economics at Susquehanna University.

“If you're looking at a jobs program, a far better program would simply be to spend a lot of federal money to fix Pennsylvania's bridges, for example,” Rousu said. “People working on bridges have a much higher unemployment rate than, say, the scientists who are more likely to obtain research and development jobs.”

But that would require congressional action, and a divided Congress has shown little appetite for large federal spending bills since 2010.

“The fact that Congress has not been willing to take me up, so far, on my proposal to aggressively fund infrastructure right now makes no sense. We can reduce our unemployment rate and put (people) to work right now,” Obama said.

Republicans countered that Obama's energy and environmental policies, which are tightening restrictions on coal-fired power plants, are costing people existing jobs.

“Hundreds of family-sustaining energy jobs were lost when power plants in Washington, Greene and Armstrong counties were closed,” Pennsylvania GOP chairman Rob Gleason said.

Peduto plans to join a delegation from Pittsburgh attending the White House Maker Faire, an event on Wednesday designed to highlight small-scale and advanced manufacturing. The visit was Obama's third this year to the Pittsburgh area, which prompted Peduto to make him an offer when he greeted Obama on the tarmac at Pittsburgh International Airport.

“I told him ... I'll find him an apartment,” Peduto said. “He said the winters are too cold. It reminds him too much of Chicago.”

Mike Wereschagin and Deb Erdley are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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