- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The idea that the United States is becoming a third-world country is, of course, absurd, or at least highly debatable, or exaggerated, just now anyhow, probably. But there are some trends and data that beg for attention in manufacturing, high-tech industry and international trade. I can’t support the following with tables and graphs. It’s anecdotal. But I notice it everywhere.

The manufacture of airliners has for at least a half-century been a flagship of technologically advanced industry as well as a sort of foreign exchange for the United States. Most people who follow such matters know that the European Airbus Industries has pulled ahead of the U.S. in sales. I fly a fair bit, and find myself often in Brazilian aircraft from Embraer.

They are small craft, usually called “regional jets,” but they are eating into the U.S. market. Isn’t Boeing Co. supposed to make them? Does anyone think that Embraer won’t make progressively larger planes? This reminds me of what happened when the Japanese started to sell cars in the United States.

There is more. Yearly we see studies and test results showing that American students in the sciences and mathematics score poorly when compared with those of other countries. I have always thought that sooner or later poor education would have to harm U.S. commerce. As best I can tell, until now it hasn’t. The usual explanation is that the inflow of Indian and other Asian engineers, scientists and programmers has taken up the slack.

Toyota recently decided to build a manufacturing plant in Ontario instead of the United States, despite attempts by several American states to get the factory. Why? The Canadians are more easily trained — that is, better educated.

A news report on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. quoted Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, as saying that Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Alabama because of an untrained — and often illiterate — work force.

In Alabama, trainers had to use “pictorials” to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment, he said. “The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario,” he said.

Wait. An often illiterate work force? Isn’t this the United States, technological leader of the world? The Japanese have to put plants elsewhere because we can’t read or use high-tech equipment? I thought those were problems that companies had in third-world nations.

Detroit once was the center of automotive manufacturing. Now, it isn’t. When I tell people of the finding by the Detroit News that the city is 47 percent functionally illiterate, they don’t believe me.

These are not observations unique to me. The Boston Globe recently ran a story with the headline, “High-tech talent flows back to India. Those who helped fuel U.S. boom may spur brain drain.” The reasons the paper gave were growing opportunities at home, and a desire to be where they felt culturally comfortable.

Maybe I’ve gone around the bend. Maybe the little voices are misleading me. Still, it seems to me that we are seeing the shadowy outline of something we aren’t going to like. The tech competition grows rapidly, hired talent is perhaps beginning to leave, and the work force doesn’t read that well. Ouch.

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