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One of the great challenges facing our economy today and into the future is the availability of an appropriately educated and skilled workforce.

In a Wall Street Journal article on Ft. Wayne, Indiana, we saw a snapshot of a broader national issue: the shortage of talent in manufacturing regions. In Ft. Wayne they have high unemployment and a large number of job openings, suggesting a mismatch between the needs and skills available.

One of the most severe shortages is for skilled trades and technicians, skills that are taught at local community colleges. The community college in Ft. Wayne was using only about 70 percent of its capacity to educate young people in these disciplines.

In Michigan, at a recent Summit on Jobs organized by the governor, the number one shortage of talent in Michigan was skilled trades and technicians.

In second place were engineers with mechanical/electrical abilities. One important fact about both of these is that you have to get your hands dirty.

Another way of looking at it is that it doesn't necessarily mean getting oil and grime on your hands and clothes but you really must know how things work and have a deep understanding of how things work in the real world of manufacturing.

Many young people and their parents envision a job on Wall Street or some other "clean" profession when the needs are so great in one of the most important parts of our economy.

Using the auto industry as an example: an auto manufacturer today has an economic multiplier of about 10. This means that for every job at an auto company like Ford, GM or Toyota, there are 9 other jobs tied to that job in suppliers or "spin-off" jobs like grocery stores, restaurants. That really cool Wall Street job has a multiplier of about two, which suggests our economy would be in tough shape if all we had were Wall Street jobs.

One country that has been a preeminent manufacturing power for many years is Germany.

Even today they are a manufacturing leader in the EU. One of the foundations of Germany's success is its technical training program for hands-on skilled trades and technicians. These positions are highly regarded and even revered in Germany and many aspire to be trained appropriately to fill these important jobs. For the typical German, it is not a sin to work with your hands and mind.

If we in the United States are to maintain the strength of our economy, we have to manufacture goods.

Fortunately, with the enormous productivity improvements over the past several decades, we can compete effectively with low-wage countries in making what would call "big tech" things like cars, trucks, washing machines and more. Today, if you assemble a car in China because of cheap labor, the transportation cost is greater than the savings on labor.

To me it is becoming increasingly clear that getting one's hands dirty is a good thing for the individual and for America. No matter what field one may choose, whether a skilled trade/technician or an engineer or accountant, practical, hands-on experience is critical.

We have a choice. We can sit back and let others around the world do the tough task of manufacturing the stuff that we need to live, or we can step "up to the plate" and put our minds and hands to work.

David E. Cole, chairman,

AutoHarvest

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