OAKBROOK TERRACE — An educated workforce and a cooperative Washington, D.C. are essential for the country to grow and compete in the world economy, according to the three chief executive officers speaking Wednesday at the Elmhurst College Governmental Forum.
The current lack of educated workers was especially apparent for heavy-machinery manufacturer Caterpillar as it grew last year, CEO Doug Oberhelman said.
“We were interviewing thousands of people for manufacturing jobs,” he said. “This is for manufacturing jobs on the shop floor, so, basic skills, nothing fancy. I was appalled to learn that we reject 60 percent of applicants.
“Why is that? They can't read, they have no math skills and they fail a drug test.”
Oberhelman was joined by CEOs Desiree Rogers and Thomas Kloet at the forum, titled “Jobs, Education and the Economy,” at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace.
Rogers is CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. Kloet is CEO of TMX Group Inc., the company that operates the principle financial markets for Canada.
Former Illinois Speaker of the House Lee Daniels performed master of ceremonies duties and former Governor of Michigan John Engler moderated the conversation between Oberhelman, Rogers and Kloet.
The discussion covered a wide-ranging set of issues before a crowd of about 800, including everything from China’s economy, to the Keystone Pipeline and the possibility of becoming energy independent through natural gas in the next 10 years.
The panel seemed to agree that the country needs to pull together and focus on education and the economy above most other issues, especially in Washington.
“We’ve splintered ourselves into a tremendous number of interest groups,” Rogers said. “So it’s very hard for our leaders in Washington to agree on anything.”
All three expressed the need for education reform from the grade school level through higher education and job training, but did not offer specific remedies.
Rogers said schools need to take a more tailored approach to childhood education on a student-to-student and school-to-school level, as opposed to teaching to standardized test. She also encouraged the growth of trade schools and community collages.
“Not everybody wants to go to Harvard,” she said. “What about the community schools? How do we get those community colleges up and running? And there’s no shame in being a carpenter or a plumber. How do we get people employed and in the right positions and the right training?”
When asked by the audience about charter schools versus traditional public schools, Oberhelman took the “anything that sticks” approach, saying he was in favor of promoting both and encouraging choice.
Oberhelman and Kloet both stressed their belief that uncertainty in Washington has stagnated the economy.
“There is a ton of money on the sidelines looking at the world saying ‘We’re looking for investment opportunities,’” Kloet said. “The corporate balance sheets are very strong right now. The thing that’s bothering them is uncertainty. In my career, I’ve never seen the degree of uncertainty that exists in the ‘C suites’ of companies and even in investors minds …”
Kloet and Oberhelman both also argued for lower corporate tax rates.
“When you look at corporate tax rates in the United States, they are very high,” Kloet said. “That is a competitive disadvantage for the United States against every country that’s growing at a faster rate, and it’s something that we have to address."