Work Force Untrained For New Jobs

April 5, 2004
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"There are limits to what a community can and should do." So said Johnson Controls Inc. Jack Murphy, vice president and general manager of interiors operations for North America in JCI's Automotive Group.

Community leaders in JCI's Holland home are well enough educated to understand that and made no pretense of political posturing. Instead, the community showed regional leadership in seizing the opportunity to educate their constituents about the realities of global trade and focused on what they can do. Holland Mayor Al McGeehan articulated the issue well and showed courage in doing so. Gov. Jennifer Granholm also took the high road, unlike Michigan Republican Party leadership, which attempted to blame business decisions on the governor. Even Murphy said no public package could generate the kind of cost reductions needed to remain competitive in the production of sun visors in Holland.

Grand Rapids Business Journal last week wrote in this space of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's comments as reported by the Associated Press during a financial conference in Boston: "Time and again throughout our history, we have discovered that attempting merely to preserve the comfortable features of the present, rather than reaching for new levels of prosperity, is a sure path to stagnation." If either of the presidential candidates were to listen to Greenspan (and we would bet on Bush), there might be a real turn of perception and understanding among voters. That either of them would allow blame for the current circumstance of change only spins the circle wider to be forever unending, even while business in America continues on the road to prosperity.

Grand Rapids Business Journal has reported on the "new economy" of the life sciences industries, technology and technology applications in manufacturing. Last week The Right Place Inc. President Birgit Klohs told a business audience that the Muskegon SmartZone, focused on the development of alternative energy sources, could prove to be another big job generator for the region. "If we're going to have alternative energy devices, there are manufacturers here who can make them. So we're trying to introduce manufacturers to that whole new plethora of what could be coming out of fuel cells," Klohs said.

The Right Place will continue working with manufacturers but will concentrate on the small companies that may need assistance with innovation. She also noted that grouping smaller companies could leverage knowledge. Further, the economic team is working with Washington legislators to determine funding to stimulate that innovative process.

Even if communities are able to begin the transition, the education of a work force ready to fill those jobs is woefully lacking. The importance of the education of a smaller work force has been stressed on this page over and again; it has been stressed by Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bert Bleke and by U.S. Sen. Vern Ehlers.

The greatest tragedy for West Michigan communities is not the painful process of "retooling," but a work force that is unable to assume those jobs, and the resulting pressure on business owners to import its work force from other countries, even while watching unemployment numbers rise.

Such has already begun.    BJ

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