He visited two classrooms at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem.
Obama said he chose to speak at the school because it's a model of an educational institution that supplies everyone from high school graduates to laid-off autoworkers with new skills to work in industries of the future.
Obama spoke to Kathy Proctor, who was training for a new career after 30 years in the furniture industry. Proctor says she has younger children and wants to inspire them to pursue their dreams.
The president also spoke to student Paul Street, who said he earned a degree at Wake Forest University but wanted more laboratory experience before pursuing higher degrees in biotech.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center says the state ranks behind only Texas and California in the number of biotech jobs with about 57,000.
President Obama also made a speech and warned of a future where America could lag other nations. He called for more spending on education, innovation and infrastructure to ensure that doesn't happen.
Without detailing specific new proposals, the president told his audience of teachers and students it was time for an American "Sputnik moment" - referring to the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that jolted the U.S. into jump-starting its own space and science programs.
"We need a commitment to innovation we haven't seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon," Obama said.
The speech was a preview of Obama's State of the Union address early next year and his 2011 agenda as he grapples with a divided Congress over the next two years, aides said.
"Right now the hard truth is this," Obama said. "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That's just the truth. And if you hear a politician say it's not, they're just not paying attention."
The president set out a goal that no politician would dispute: for America "to win the future."
The disagreements will come over how to get there, with Republicans certain to be skeptical of any new program that costs tax dollars.
Obama acknowledged the hard reality of the country's fiscal woes, and said he'd be looking at the recent proposals from his budget commission to find ways to trim deficits over the short term.
But, the president said, "I will argue and insist that we cannot cut back on those investments that have the biggest impact on our economic growth."
He said that cutting spending on education, research and development and green technologies would be like trying to reduce the weight of an airplane by removing the engine.
"We've got to have a long-term vision about where we want to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now," he said.
Obama also used his speech to press for a compromise on the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts, reiterating his position that no upper-income tax cuts should be extended unless jobless benefits are as well.
Even as Obama spoke in Winston-Salem, negotiations were under way in Washington toward a deal that would extend jobless benefits along with a temporary extension of all the tax cuts. Such a deal would fall short of Obama's long-stated goal of extending tax cuts for middle-income people while letting cuts expire for the rich.
The president seemed resigned to a compromise, saying a solution must be found to keep middle-class taxes from going up, "even if it's not 100 percent of what I want or what the Republicans want."
But the president insisted he'd be resolute in ensuring America's competitiveness. He reeled off a string of statistics showing Asian nations and other countries pulling ahead of the U.S. in certain areas, science graduates among them.
The nation needs more high-speed rail, broadband Internet access and spending on roads and bridges, he said.
"Today China has the fastest trains and the fastest supercomputers in the world," the president said.
He called for "flipping the script" on trade so the U.S. sells more to other nations than it buys from them.