David Rohde

What job creation looks like outside Washington

David Rohde
Feb 16, 2012 22:47 UTC

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.

The university as job laboratory

David Rohde
Feb 10, 2012 01:40 UTC

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA — At the age of 17, Holden Thorp placed fifth in a nationally televised Rubik’s cube competition on the ABC show That’s Incredible! At 24, he received a doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology after studying for three years instead of five. And at 43, he was named chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, becoming one of the country’s youngest university presidents.

Today, Thorp is trying to turn this 29,000-student public university into an engine of economic innovation. A business owner who has twice launched $25 million pharmaceutical startups, Thorp has streamlined the process for faculty members to turn their discoveries into private companies. He has made “entrepreneurship” a minor for all undergraduate students.

And Thorp has co-written a book, Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, with the university’s “entrepreneur in residence” — a former venture capital banker. It calls for the top 125 U.S. research universities to revitalize the American economy.