What job creation looks like outside Washington

February 16, 2012

RALEIGH-DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — In two small, unassuming offices here, Bob Robinson and Eric Buckland are quietly making heroic efforts to help the American middle class. But American capitalism — and the American government — serve them both poorly.

The two men, the small businesses they painstakingly nurture and the difficulties they encounter are on-the-ground examples of the broad economic challenges the United States faces. Their stories do not present easy answers. Instead, they put the lie to Republican and Democratic orthodoxies regarding economic growth.

Start with Robinson. He is the executive director of the Raleigh Business & Technology Center, a primarily government-funded effort to help the poor and middle-class residents of southeast Raleigh start small businesses. The center — and the neighborhood it calls home — shows how a high-tech boom that has made Raleigh-Durham the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S. nonetheless misses large segments of the population.

Southeast Raleigh has an unemployment rate of roughly 14 percent, three times that of Chapel Hill and other nearby affluent communities. Many local residents lack the education and skill levels needed to obtain high-tech jobs. Instead of trying to launch Internet startups, Robinson helps local entrepreneurs open flower shops, auto repair garages and bakeries. Over the last two years, he has also trained and placed 30 people in construction jobs. His new goal is to train people for entry-level jobs at Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.

“It’s not all about technology,” he said. “We need jobs immediately.”

Just down the street from Robinson’s center, the South Wilmington Street Center for the homeless is filled to capacity. Frank Lawrence, the shelter’s director, said a decline in the construction industry hit local lower-middle-class and poor households hardest. At the same time, residents of other cities have flocked here after hearing of Raleigh-Durham’s boom.

“A lot of people moved here thinking there are jobs,” Lawrence said. “But they don’t have the skills to get them.”

Robinson’s center, though, doesn’t neatly confirm liberal assumptions about the failings of the private sector. Bo Marshall, one of the small businesspeople Robinson’s center trained, glows with pride when he calls himself a “serial entrepreneur.” An American sense of self-reliance, not dependency, bubbles among the center’s graduates. The magic of owning a small business that Republicans love to extol is palpable.

“They give us the essential tools,” Marshall told me. “But it’s up to the individual to get up and run with it.”

Robinson said the center, which opened in 2000, tries to combine the strengths of the private and public sectors. It helps inexperienced contractors bid for public and private construction projects, trains small business owners in marketing and introduces its graduates to local banks.

“The best solutions that we are involved in include government employees who are knowledgeable and capable of aligning policies and procedures with small business owners’ needs,” Robinson said. “Along with banks that we ask to reinvest and sustain.”

A few miles to the north, Eric Buckland is trying to create middle-class jobs as well, but in a completely different way. Buckland is the president of Bioptigen, an 18-employee high-tech startup that manufactures handheld retinal scanners used by eye doctors and researchers.

The company is based in the Research Triangle Park, a famed public-private partnership that over the last 50 years used skilled graduates from nearby Duke University, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to draw major corporations. Now, as multinationals trim research-and-development budgets or ship such efforts overseas, park administrators try to keep rents low to accommodate small, high tech firms like Bioptigen.

Buckland’s company relies on a combination of sales, private “angel” investors and federal research grants to function. Buckland says he is confident about the company’s future, but it struggled with cash flow during the recession, dropping from 18 employees to eight. Like hundreds of thousands of other small businesses, it does not offer the quick returns and high profits that draw venture capital.

“It can’t just be about billion-dollar wins that VCs target,” Buckland told me. “We need investments in small and medium-size companies that feed the ecosystem.”

At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration is blocking the sale of Bioptigen’s clinical device in the United States. The scanners are sold in four European countries, India and Australia but are still awaiting approval from Washington.

“You have to balance two mutually exclusive goals,” Buckland said. “One is promoting innovation in the economy and the other is protecting consumers against their fears. And the balance has shifted more toward protecting consumers against their fears.”

Buckland’s views, though, don’t fit Republican dogma. While complaining about overregulation, he says the Obama stimulus definitely worked. Research grants included in the package helped his small business sell high-tech products to universities. And Buckland blames budget brinksmanship by conservative Republicans for delaying a $2.7 million research grant he expected to receive in December.

“It’s really horrible,” Buckland said. “I think Congress has no idea of their impact on small business.”

Both men expressed exasperation with Washington partisanship. Robinson defended both the private and public sectors so vigorously that I struggled to peg him politically. Buckland, despite complaining about overregulation, said he leaned Democratic. Both called for pragmatism.

“My neighbor is a staunch Republican,” Buckland said. “And we both agree that if you can get reasonable people to sit down together, they can reach an agreement.”

“This polarization is killing us,” he added. “We’ve got to get through that, if we’re going to get through this malaise.”

I concur. Out here on the ground, party orthodoxy crumbles.


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This is starting to sound like socialist with a identity crisis. Thinking that your problem is not getting enough grants from the government is wrong from the get go. Capitalism rewards those who work period. It does not matter what they work at. We are not promised the job of our dreams we must work and work hard to make our dreams happen. I do not know anyone who wants to work – whether it is to survive or to flourish – who can’t make it happen in America. Trying to smooth the curve only creates dependency. Many of us have had jobs we did not enjoy – how about an technology executive helping to press shirts at 2 am. to meet laundry production. Not fun. However fast forward 15 years and through hard work you will find a successful software company with over a dozen high paying jobs where there was none. No government help just hard work. Let people work for there dreams – they are more capable than you think.

Posted by xit007 | Report as abusive

Whether political, religious, or philosophical, zealots are a curse.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

“Many local residents lack the education and skill levels needed to obtain high-tech jobs…”.

“a decline in the construction industry hit local lower-middle-class and poor households hardest. …residents of other cities have flocked here…thinking there are jobs…but they don’t have the skills to get them.”

Well, duh? There are good times and bad times. Always have been and always will be. Part of life, people.
Construction work is almost always “boom and bust”. That doesn’t excuse workers who live the same way, from pay check to pay check, divorced or homeless a month after pay stops. We see today an explosion of “dead end” people that may never, personally, experience “good times” again.

Americans pour untold billions into a unionized, essentially unaccountable public “education establishment” that focuses on daily head counts (for government money) and college preparation. Everyone ignores the fact that a majority of graduates never enter or graduate college.

With no meaningful vocational educational opportunities, is it any the drop-out rate is high? I suggest, instead, that the “focus” should be exclusive on Math and English literacy feeding into a vocational “system” much like the military uses to train it’s specialists.

Every graduate should leave with a skill in current local demand sufficient to support themselves and fund further education for those with genuine aptitude for it. Vocational instructors should be exempt from abstract “teaching credential” requirements dictated by unions so long as they can demonstrate the ability to convey genuine job skills in demand.

Their “performance” should be by reports filed by graduates six months following graduation. America needs to shift it’s direction from the pervasive mediocrity of today to a healthy and successful meritocracy if there is to again be a “bright future” ahead for the average citizen.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

What’s so wrong about Socialism?

It seems that the 1% have done a great job scaring the American public about Socialism, such that it’s about as taboo as Communism. America cannot grow and will only stagnate, if we as a collective whole do not help people who need it.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

Socialism is an extremely divisive word in America.
The income gap between the richest 1% versus the 99% is growing larger everyday. The Dow Jones continues to rally,despite the fact that a signifigant part of the population are living from week to week on low incomes.
Capitalism is in crisis, and the majority are suffering the consequences.

Posted by Viability | Report as abusive

i don’t get all the hand wringing over the income gap…the 1% are not gaining at the expense of the 99%. I’ve worked around a number of the wealthy people in my career. The 1% I’ve met have been bright and hard working. Shrewd, driven, hard nosed? Yes. Lying, cheating, exploiting? I haven’t seen it.

Posted by jambrytay | Report as abusive

Do not paint all capitalists with a broad brush. Many bankers, many at the fed, as well as fannie/freddie and other corporate welfare types are not really capitalists.They are crooked people who think only of their benefit at the expense of the others. Hard work is not their mantra – manipulation, cheating and theft is their game. We are not talking about honest adults. These people have only convinced themselves that they are free market types when actually they are merely communists/socialists in capitalist clothing.
They espouse free markets until the downside involves their interests. Their instinct at that time is to cry, mope, and threaten like a two year old, in order to get what they want from the public trough. This display is accepted by short term thinkers in government too ignorant to truly understand the demands of capitalism, or else crooked themselves. Stop the wealth redistribution from the actual capitalists who sustain our economy, through the paid for political establishment, to their crony capitalist/socialist/communist masters.
Much of the rationalization for these schemes comes from the academic world. Their ideas are bandied about as gospel due to their academic credentials but without an understanding of how the system depends on human nature for its effective operation.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

Americans who somehow think they are immune from Government are simply ignorant of modern economic reality.

The price of everything in America is determined by Government, both of the USA and of foreign countries. The mechanism is the exchange rate of the US dollar. If the dollar gets stronger, everything American, including labor and services produced here, becomes more expensive not only to the rest of the world, but also domestically.

Try selling a Chevrolet for $100,000. Then try selling one for $15,000. When the competition is imported and the dollar is strong, prices of goods and services, and the number of American jobs, go down. If you need to work, that is bad. If you do not, that is good. Obviously, a strong dollar favors the rich and hurts everyone else. This is why we have a strong dollar.

The media, which is controlled by the rich, and the Government, which is owned by the rich, do not want you to understand this basic truth. I will leave it to the reader to figure out why.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive


The fundamental problem with Socialism is that when “people who need” help always get it the incentive to help themselves disappears quickly and never returns. That’s why Captain John Smith adopted the rule in his early colony that those who don’t work don’t eat.

Those dependent upon others also fundamentally resent it. That’s why public housing cannot be build to last with the materials sufficient for owner-occupied structures.

In America the great majority of our poor DRIVE! They have cell phones, wide screen TVs, satellite or cable service and their lives would not materially improve if they were employed at minimum wage.

There is a sizable demographic in America who aren’t yet enjoying all these free “benefits” that will do anything to “get on the gravy train” and not have to work. There are not enough “workers” to support an ever-increasing number of citizens who eat and breed but do not work.

As Margret Thatcher said, “Socialism eventually runs out of other people’s money”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


are you William Jennings Bryan’s speech writer?

Posted by jambrytay | Report as abusive

Why is it that practically everybody is blind to the bottom of all this ???

Capitalism is based on unlimited growth; more workers= cheaper labor = more consumers = more products = more profits, for the very few. Capitalism and our exploding world population have now come into direct conflict with our planet’s limited and fast diminishing resources.

“If every Chinese citizen were to consume as much as the American or European citizen we would need the resources of four more planets” (Jane Goodall, in Beijing 2010.)

If we were to include the Brazilian, Indian, African and other Asian citizens we would need 15 more planets.

World population now exceeds 7 billion. This is simply crazy. Our planet cannot support us much longer.

Capitalism in its present practice is unsustainable, and it will collapse sooner than later.

Today’s global addiction to money, power and material possession, ‘Capitalism’, is just a subconscious desperate reaction to an apparently unavoidable near future economic world catastrophe, by those few who are in a position to actually attain them.

Of course everyone else is aiming for the same. Shortsighted, they believe they can survive this catastrophe unscathed. In fact they want this to happen as it will guarantee their supposedly everlasting elite status, as if mass revolutions are no longer possible.

And who are these very few elite addicts who are in a position to attain huge money, power and material possessions? You know who they are.
These are very troubled characters, with the lowest self esteem and serious ego problems which money and power will never be able resolve for them. They have become legalized criminals.

Socialism or any other conventional economic/political system will not work either. We will have to come up with something innovative, even revolutionary, that will work for the whole world, not just for the few.

One thing for sure is that you cannot run a country or the world like a corporation, as it is done today and which has proven to be the failure which we are experiencing now.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

xit007 — The common garden spider is the ultimate capitalist — work, investment, persistence, and a bit of patience. Now imagine capitalism from the viewpoint of a fly.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Socialism is what happened when the big banks received $800 billion from the government to stay afloat. Conservatives who argue that it is bad, but benefit from it are hypocrites. Monied interests have infiltrated the highest ranks of our government institutions and greed, huge greed, is rife and in control. Those that follow this “conservative” line are blinded by the smokescreen put in place to keep the ignorant at bay and in control. Citizen United seals the deal, allowing the most monied the most leverage to keep control of the government, to insure all legislation is in corporate interest, not government by the people for the people.

Posted by FrmCali | Report as abusive