Photo Caption: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown at the OU Inn on Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, stressed business incubation, investment in manufacturing and investment in the future when he delivered the keynote speech at the Ohio University Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs' economic-growth strategies conference in Athens on Wednesday.
The conference, called "Positioning Appalachia: Economic Growth Strategies for Success," was attended by numerous area elected officials, leaders and business people.
Wilhelm explained that this is so because Brown advocates for economic development that leads to success for Americans at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum.
For his part, Brown said it was embarrassing for him to see the debate in Washington over the past several weeks focused on something it didn't need to be focused on.
"Not on budgets, it needed to be on budgets and deficit reductions, but mostly it needs to be on jobs," he said. "There are things we need to do. We need to do an infrastructure (reinvestment) bank. We need to enforce trade rules better than we do. We need to work with small businesses. We need to do 'buy America,' when we're spending tax dollars."
Brown spoke about the importance of manufacturing, pointing out that Ohio is the third leading manufacturing state in the country behind the population-rich states of Texas and California.
"We make things," he said. "We make things in southeast Ohio. We are second in the country in solar manufacturing."
He praised Athens County for its business incubation programs.
"You can take a tour of this state and you see that when we come out of this recession — finally really do come out of it, not just statistically come out of it — I think you'll see this state in much better position than we were 30 years ago when we came out of the recession in the 1980s," he said.
He said that while Ohio has been a big hub for traditional manufacturing, the state now needs to also lead the nation when it comes to new technology manufacturing such as clean energy and aerospace technology, and food processing.
"There's real opportunity there that we need to take advantage of," he said.
He later added that Ohio had more clean-energy jobs come out of federal stimulus package in the first year than any other state in the country.
Brown also put an emphasis on making sure that the state is offering the types of opportunities for young people that will keep them in Ohio and contributing to the betterment of the state.
He said that he has been working on legislation that would allow job creation to occur from the bottom up, encouraging community colleges and regional businesses to work together to create appropriate job skill training in demand in a given area.
"It will be bottom-up workforce investment," he said.
When asked during a press availability about Athens County's high percentage of low-paying, no-benefits service-industry jobs, and what can be done to create better-paying jobs that carry benefits so these residents don't have to rely on government assistance, Brown called it the "million-dollar question."
"We saw in the 1990s an increase in wages," he said. "Over the past decade, we've seen a stagnation and decline of average wages. The wealthiest people in this country are controlling more and more of the income, more and more of the wealth, the richest 2 percent. And the middle class is shrinking."
He said that this is ultimately a recipe for social unrest and disaster.
"That's why manufacturing matters, because manufacturing jobs pay more," he said. "It's not the only answer. But in the '90s, when we invested more in education, especially community colleges, and giving people those skills, not just for manufacturing, but health-care jobs, they got paid better."
Brown said that in a community like Athens, the university brings great benefits to the area, especially in terms of attracting young talent and keeping it here after students graduate.
"One of the things that amazes me about Athens is that it seems to me — and this is only anecdotal — that more graduates of OU stay around the community than any school in the state," he said. "I don't know if it's true, but it sure seems like it."
He said that this gives more impetus to find ways to close the gap between the small number of people getting wealthier and wealthier and the broad middle stagnating.
"It's a real problem," he said. "The answers aren't obvious or clear but I think we have to address it."
Brown called for government partnerships with small towns in rural Ohio for appropriate job training to help people get on their feet.
"The bigger cities have some other kinds of safety nets and other abilities to fight back," he said. "In rural Ohio it's a little bit harder to do that Until you can get some employers who pay really good wages, and the spin-off from that, it's always a struggle."