DURHAM, N.C. — Beset by a grim employment picture, President Obama on Monday vowed to ease the way for businesses to expand hiring and offered assurances to an anxious public that he is focused on creating jobs – the top political issue heading into the 2012 election and the Achilles’ heel of his presidency.

“The sky is not falling,” Obama said. But the president, in a state that he narrowly won in 2008, could not ignore dismal recent economic reports.

“Our economic challenges were years in the making,” he told workers at an energy-efficient lighting plant in Durham, “and it will take years to get back to where we need to be.”

He called for educating more high-tech workers, announcing a plan to train 10,000 new American engineers every year via a public-private partnership.

He also held a high-profile meeting with top CEOs who make up his advisory jobs council, offering encouragement for several ideas, including a plan that could create an estimated 114,000 jobs by making commercial and apartment buildings more energy efficient.

The visit to North Carolina illustrated the high stakes for Obama. By focusing on jobs, Obama provided a counterpoint to his Republican critics, particularly the seven 2012 presidential hopefuls who were meeting in New Hampshire on Monday evening for a debate.

“We stabilized the economy, we prevented a financial meltdown, and an economy that was shrinking is now growing. … But, I’m still not satisfied,” Obama said. “I will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers security.”

The stop in North Carolina was the first in a two-day trip. Obama was attending three fundraisers later Monday in Miami, burnishing his profile in the crucial battleground of Florida. Today, he planned a rendezvous with an important Hispanic constituency on the island of Puerto Rico. Voters of Puerto Rican descent make up a significant bloc in Florida.