Obama to speak at fast-growing Wis. engines plant

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)
President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

MILWAUKEE (AP) – President Barack Obama is expected to talk about his push to increase the minimum wage and ways to improve job opportunities Thursday when he visits a growing Milwaukee-area gas engines plant.

The trip to Wisconsin is part of a four-stop tour the president is making to expand on themes in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Obama called on Congress in his annual speech to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and said he would use his executive power to do so on new federal contracts. He also promised a review of federal job-training programs and to work with leading U.S. companies to help the long-term unemployed.

The General Electric plant Obama will visit in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha makes engines used in the oil and natural gas industries. It has been adding jobs rapidly in the face of demand generated in part by an oil boom in North Dakota.

GE hired 64 new employees at the plant last year, 36 of them hourly workers, spokesman Shaun Wiggins said. Manufacturing jobs there have grown 45 percent since 2010, from 275 workers to almost 400. In all, the plant originally built in 1906 to make car engines now employs nearly 700 people.

Don Griffin, a business representative for the union that represents manufacturing workers at the plant, said he expects Obama to recognize a training program that has helped move people from minimum wage to better-paying jobs. The nearly 20-year-old Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/BIG STEP works with companies, unions and regional agencies to identify hard-to-fill jobs and teach people to do them.

“It’s a win for the company, it’s a win for the union, and it’s a win for the state of Wisconsin by getting people into decent-paying jobs,” Griffin said.

The partnership matched GE with 13 potential employees last year and then worked with the union and an area technical college to train them for $17-per-hour machining jobs. Over the past five years, WRTP/BIG STEP has placed more than 2,100 workers in jobs paying an average of $18.39 per hour. More than four-fifths of those workers previously earned less than $10 an hour.

“We have the ability to develop the most skilled and creative manufacturing workforce in the world, and at GE we have a shining example of a labor and management partnership leading the way,” WRTP/BIG STEP president Earl Buford said in a statement.

About two-thirds of the partnership’s funding is public, with the rest coming from private businesses and charities.

Republicans took the president’s visit as an opportunity to jab at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who will not appear with Obama but instead campaign in western Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Republican Party issued a statement accusing Burke of avoiding a president whose approval rating has fallen since the flawed rollout of the federal health care exchange.

A Marquette University law school poll released Monday showed Obama’s approval rating among Wisconsin voters has fallen from 49 percent in October to 44 percent.

Burke tweeted Wednesday that she had spoken to Obama by telephone and shared with him concerns about the middle class.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he would greet the president in Milwaukee and talk with him about the state’s propane shortage, but Walker won’t visit the GE plant with Obama because he will return to Madison for a meeting of the state’s jobs agency.

Walker also greeted Obama during a visit following the 2012 State of the Union address, even though Walker was embroiled in a Democratic-led attempt to recall him from office at the time.

Waukesha County is one of the most solidly Republican in Wisconsin. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried the county with 67 percent of the vote to Obama’s 32 percent in 2012. The city of Waukesha went for Romney, 58 percent to 42 percent.

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.

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