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Workforce must climb economic food chain, not battle for bottom

Ortbals Headshot 1 1 16By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    Trade, both foreign and domestic, is the lifeblood of a nation. Wars have been fought to procure warm water seaports because of this age-old reality. And it’s never been truer than it is today.
    However, international trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP took a beating during the recent presidential campaign and that assault continues. President Trump, who owes many of those who’ve been negatively impacted by international trade for his election, has already put the kibosh on the TPP and is vowing to renegotiate NAFTA.
    No question that some folks have been hurt by the importation of inexpensive foreign goods but, with the average Mexican factory worker making just $2 an hour, there’s simply no way that American workers can compete and still put food on the table.
    Rather than trying to compete for those jobs, our workforce needs to move up the economic food chain. Whether you have international trade agreements or not, we live in a global economy. We can’t throw up trade barriers to keep out foreign goods and we simply cannot have large numbers of unskilled, poorly educated people doing menial jobs for low wages. That is not the path to a strong national economy.
    Despite the fact that the unemployment rate is below 5 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are about 6.4 million people who aren’t counted as unemployed because they have given up looking for a job and another 6.5 million who are working part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time employment.
    These 13 million people are unemployed or underemployed at a time when many employers cannot find enough qualified workers. I suspect that many of them lack the skills and knowledge that are in demand in today’s economy.
    What we should have been doing — and NAFTA, if nothing else, should have been the impetus — was to focus on education. We should have been expanding and enhancing pre-K education. We should have been revamping the K-12 system so that every student graduates with a strong knowledge base. And, we should have been investing in higher education, insuring that it was affordable for every American.
    Instead, we took a very different course. Tax cuts for the wealthy were our highest priority based on the misguided 19th century “horse and sparrow” (aka, trickle down and supply side) economic theory that, if you feed the horse enough oats, some seeds will pass through for the sparrows in the road. We pushed educational programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core that focused on test scores and didn’t provide resources. And we cut back our investment in higher ed so that tuition and fees have skyrocketed, erecting a barrier to education for many students and leaving many others severely in debt.
    It was particularly disheartening recently when Missouri’s new Gov. Eric Greitens decided that his highest priorities would be to slash the state’s higher ed budget and sign Right to Work into law. That is a playbook for a race to the bottom and one to which our own governor, Bruce Rauner, subscribes.
    Many Trump supporters voted for Trump because they thought he would bring back their jobs that paid $20/hour to assemble a widget. The fact is that those jobs aren’t coming back and it doesn’t matter what Donald Trump says or how many states pass Right to Work.
    As a nation, we have foolishly wasted the years since NAFTA’s enactment, sitting around pining for the good old days and cranking out millions of poorly educated, unskilled people who have no place in the modern economy. And we took a very bad turn in this last election, following Trump further down that dead-end road.
    We need to produce more people with the skills, knowledge and abilities for advanced manufacturing; who can design the machines; write the computer code; design and build the buildings and infrastructure of tomorrow; and create cutting-edge companies.
    Engaging in trade wars and tamping down wages to try to maintain a hold on yesterday’s jobs is not the path to prosperity. Education is.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 659-1977.

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