President Barack Obama ate his lunch at the downtown Austin Stubb’s BBQ on Thursday – but as much as he said he enjoyed the food, it was ultimately a business lunch. Obama visited Austin as part of a campaign to promote manufacturing and innovative research, which he said are crucial to the nation’s economic development.
Throughout the day, Obama stressed the importance of competitive technological development, specialized job training, and the importance of reforming high school curriculums and making higher education more affordable.
Obama visited Austin on the first stop of a Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity tour, which he will continue through the next several weeks. While in the city, Obama also met with UT entrepreneurs, including the student founders of Lynx Laboratories, a 3D photography company established through UT’s Longhorn Startup program.
At Applied Materials, an Austin-based company that provides equipment and services to manufacture advanced semiconductors, flat panel displays and solar photovoltaic columns, Obama announced several new initiatives, including a competition his administration is launching to create three “innovation institutes” around the country.
“We are looking for businesses and universities that are willing to partner together to help their region — help turn their region into global centers of high-tech jobs,” Obama said. “We want the next revolution in manufacturing to be ‘Made in America.’”
The manufacturing hubs, created by executive order, will be funded using $200 million from five agencies: the Departments of Defense, Commerce and Energy, the National Science Foundation and NASA. Obama said he hopes Congress will vote to fund an additional 15 hubs in the near future.
Obama also announced his administration will take steps to make government-held data more accessible to the public. He cited StormPulse, a startup that uses government weather data to help track disruptions in energy service, as one example of an entrepreneurial company using publicly available information for business.
“One of the things we’re doing to fuel more inventiveness like this, to fuel more private sector innovation and discovery, is to make the vast amounts of America’s data open and easy to access for the first time in history,” Obama said. “Talented entrepreneurs are doing some pretty amazing things with data that’s already being collected by government.”
Zindia Pierson, whose sister has a connection to White House staffers, brought her two elementary school-aged children to the speech. Pierson said she agreed that innovation is the key to future economic growth.
“I think that’s what America needs to do, get more innovative so we can get more jobs,” Pierson said. “I’m hoping we do innovate so that my kids will have jobs, so they can be financially independent, so they’ll be able to have families [and] be able to afford their housing. I’m hoping for a better future for my kids.”
Pierson’s daughter, Alexandra, said she also enjoyed the speech.
“I think it was awesome,” Alexandra said.
Andrew Chavez, a materials project manager for Applied Materials, said he also appreciated the forward-thinking nature of the speech.
“I was inspired, I mean, holy cow,” Chavez said. “I think like he said, the high tech sector is what drives the economy right now, especially in Austin. And driving these youngsters through the high tech schools, trying to encourage these kids to grab a spot in their future industry, I think that’s really great.”
Before visiting Applied Materials, Obama also spoke to students at Manor New Technology High School, where Obama promised to make more jobs available. The high school accepts student applicants interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through a blind lottery, and focuses on project-based learning.
“We've got to start rethinking and redesigning America’s high schools,” Obama said. “That’s what is happening here, innovation that equips graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy, with hands-on learning.”
Obama said in the last three years, several major companies have created a combined 85,000 jobs in Austin, including Apple, Visa and General Motors. He said the tech sector supports one-third of Austin jobs. Austin has an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent and five-year expected annual job growth rate of 3.2 percent, according to Forbes magazine. The currently unemployment rate in the United States is 7.6 percent.
Obama said because many students struggle to afford higher education after high school, he launched a “college scorecard” for colleges and universities to help students find institutions with the best value. The college scorecards grades universities on tuition, student debt, graduation rate and employment.
According to the scorecard, UT’s cost is graded “medium” and the amount of money borrowed for students to attend is graded “high.”
Obama left Austin shortly after 6 p.m. Jason Zielinski, public information specialist for the Austin-Bergstrom airport, said flight delays were minimal Thursday.
“Airlines are aware of the ground freeze ahead of time, so they plan accordingly,” Zielinski said. “As far as passengers who may have been inconvenienced in any way, it was a very minor delay – no cancellations or anything like that.”