GE’s chief executive, Jeff Immelt, opened the Net Impact 2009 conference this morning at Cornell University and, as usual, he was thoughtful and provocative. He was bullish on GE, of course, but, after this tough year for the U.S. economy, he sounded more pessimistic than usual about where the country and its economy are going.
The American consumer, the financial services industry and the construction industry were the major drivers of America’s long boom, going back to the 1980s. None is likely to drive economic growth in the future, Immelt said.
Instead, he noted, growth will be most robust in the developing world–places like China, India and Brazil that have bounced back more quicly than the U.S. from the global downturn–and it’s by no means clear that U.S. industry is positioned to capitalize on that growth.
There’s more growth outside the United States than there is inside the United States. We have to recognize that our destiny is connected to the emerging world. We have to repurpose ourselves as an exporter.
The trouble is, the U.S. isn’t educating as many engineers as it should be, he said. Nor are the U.S. government and U.S. companies investing as much as China, say, in energy research and development. Public policy. also remains a big question mark when it comes to energy because, so far at least, Congress has been unable to pass regulation of global warming pollutants. Other countries are moving faster.
“There’s going to be 10 million jobs created in clean energy,” Immelt said. The question is, will those jobs be in the U.S., in China, or elsewhere?
In the audience for Immelt were more than 2,000 members of Net Impact, a great organization whose purpose is “to inspire, educate, and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.” (Disclosure: I’m a new member of the Net Impact board.) Immelt has made GE’s “ecomagination” campaign a hallmark of his tenure as CEO and he said his focus at the company has been to marry capitalism and sustainability. [click to continue...]