June 20, 2018
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Business leaders share concerns, frustrations with Obama official

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — What are Maine business leaders concerned about? A broad range of issues, it turns out, from a lack of venture capital investment to a dearth of qualified applicants for jobs in sectors including biotech, trucking, retail and even hospitality.

On Monday, an Obama administration official met with about 20 area business leaders as part of series of on-the-ground round-table discussions being held by the White House Business Council. President Barack Obama formed the council, made up of cabinet and White House officials, to get firsthand feedback and concerns from businesses.

“He personally charged us, saying ‘I want you to get as far out of Washington, D.C., as possible, to rural areas, to areas with small businesses, and I want you to listen, and I want you to come back and tell me what you learn,’” said David Kappos, under secretary of commerce and director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The council plans to have senior administration officials visit at least 100 communities in all 50 states by the end of the year. Kappos has held several such round tables before and planned to visit Wisconsin later this week for another. The meeting was closed to the public, Kappos said, to encourage the business leaders to be candid with their comments. Kappos and several businessmen spoke with the Bangor Daily News after the meeting, which was hosted by Bangor Savings Bank at the firm’s Franklin Street headquarters.

Kappos said one issue raised is a common one — the problem of companies not being able to find qualified employees. Kappos said at least four of the business leaders in Bangor said they were hiring, but struggled to find qualified employees.

“Our work force just is not positioned where it needs to be for the jobs,” Kappos said.

He suggested that it pointed to a need for the administration to work closely with the community college systems across the country to align programs with business needs.

“It resonates with our need to invest in our community colleges, to ensure they’re training for the jobs that are needed,” he said. “We need to have a push in the administration.”

Kappos said that also touched on his desire, as head of the Patent and Trademark Office, to work more closely on entrepreneurial education at community colleges. He said while his office has strong relationships with many four-year schools and offers programs at them, there’s no equivalent at any community colleges. He said he’d be happy to push that idea in Maine, establishing a beachhead, offering some introductory information on trademarking, the patent program and what opportunities for aid exist.

Barry Pottle, president of Pottle’s Transportation, said there was some frustration expressed over companies’ inability to find qualified workers.

“It’s hard for us to know we’re in a recession, know the economy is poor, but we can’t hire people,” said Pottle.

Pottle said he thought the issue boiled down to too many people choosing to game the system and stay on government assistance rather than take a job.

Kappos said issues were raised that he has heard elsewhere, such as a lack of access to venture capital financing and over-regulation of business. There was also some discussion of how funding of cutting-edge research from the National Institutes of Health has declined in recent years, potentially putting the U.S. at a disadvantage globally.

Auro Nair, associate general manager at The Jackson Laboratory, said he attended the round table so he could hear what his fellow business leaders were concerned about and to bring up the issue of NIH funding.

“To some extent, it influences how the Jackson Lab grows,” Nair said.

Nair noted that the genomic revolution has just begun, with the human genome finally having been sequenced in 2000. Further research is needed to deliver real health-care results and funding has been lacking, Nair said.

“Continued investment in this is crucial,” he said.

Kappos said he did hear of one issue that hasn’t been raised elsewhere, concerning different fuel blends. Kappos said he heard that there were many different fuel blends, mandated by different states and regions because the federal government never laid out overarching regulations on the subject. That adds unnecessary costs to the transportation system and makes various fuels vulnerable to cost spikes, he said.

Kappos said he planned to talk to his counterpart at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to find out if that’s something the administration could address.

Pottle said he was the one who raised that issue, and noted that there are 56 different blends of gasoline and diesel in the United States. With only 24 refineries turning out those blends, the system is prone to shortages.

Pottle said there was some frustration vented at the meeting, largely around the amount of talk and lack of action at the federal level.

“I think Washington just doesn’t get, from the business side, what we deal with every day — we’re working hard and making less,” he said.

Jack Quirk, president of Quirk Auto, said a lot of people who work for the government once worked in business — they’ve just forgotten what that was like. He said people in government and in business know what the problems are and what needs to be done. All that’s needed, he said, was action.

“It’s going to take leadership,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say.”

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