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April 28, 2013

PUBLIC FORUM: The reality of a new American Promise

Fracking. We’ve all heard the term lately. Fracking is the process whereby water and other chemicals are injected into the earth to cause underground rock formations to fracture, creating space for oil and natural gas to collect and be pumped to the service.

The technology has proved so successful that there is currently an unforeseen boom in oil and natural gas production, which has driven the price of natural gas to historic lows. Low energy prices caused by plentiful natural gas are acting as a lure, drawing manufacturing back to North America. This is much like the natural gas boom, which attracted industry to the Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As has been written ad nauseam, modern manufacturing needs workers with advanced skills; industry has been lamenting the shortage of skilled workers for years. The baby boomers are heading for retirement and the cumulative years of experience and skill are not easily replaced. The new factor in this equation is the scale of the shortage. Manufacturing returning to America means the need for skilled workers becomes exponentially greater. The complaints of “there are no good jobs anymore” will soon be outdated. There will be plenty of good jobs, for those with the skills to land them.

However, the shortage of skilled workers could blunt this manufacturing boom. Manufacturing left because the glut of laborers in foreign nations kept labor prices low, increasing corporate profits. The problem now is the reverse. Industry will be drawn back to our shores by low energy prices, but can only flourish if it is supplied with an adequately skilled labor force. If that is not found here, industry will go where it must.

It is time for government, education, and average citizens to step up. Manufacturing has acquired a bad reputation. Thanks in part to successful collegiate marketing strategies, many think their children should grow up to be doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and other educated elite. How many parents are urging their children to develop the skills needed to succeed in advanced manufacturing? The colleges and universities of Indiana are ideally situated to deal with this problem. This is an historic era, with the possible real outcome of returning America to the position of world leader in manufacturing; restoring her economy to the robust state that was the envy of the world. Whether or not we will wake up to the opportunity and put the necessary resources to work toward this goal is still an unsettled question. We have a late start; will we be able to respond in time, or squander our historic opportunity and continue our slide into third-world status?

Monty Hughes

Walton

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