Oberhelman interview enlightening, alarming

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One thing I have always liked about Caterpillar Inc. chief executives is that they are not afraid to speak their minds. Of course, why should they be?

Still, it was refreshing to watch Doug Oberhleman's interview Tuesday on CBS news, particularly when he said what he believes is missing in Washington is honesty and that any politician who says there will be no new taxes or budget cuts to get the economy moving forward again doesn't deserve re-election.

"I don't believe that this situation about our budget is anything new. And it is beyond me that we can't have an open, honest dialogue with our people about what it takes," Oberhelman said.

I have little doubt those statements ruffled some Capitol Hill feathers, but again I doubt Oberhelman is concerned. Knowing him since his days as a vice president, he's probably hoping the comments spur a phone call or two that he can then use for "open, honest dialogue" on a myriad of issues.

The interview was conducted by Scott Pelley of CBS News, who has been asking some of America's top CEOs their thoughts on what it will take to get the country moving again.

Oberhelman sounded the usual Caterpillar refrain of free trade and a comprehensive highway bill, but he also mentioned education. He came at that from a rather unexpected – and somewhat alarming – point of view.

Asked by Pelley if Caterpillar, which is building or refurbishing plants in the United States as well as overseas, has had trouble finding enough skilled workers in this country. Oberhelman's reply:

"What we find is a lot of the applicants need retraining, they need basic education, maybe they didn't get through high school, there's all kinds of problems. So we spend a lot of time training and retraining. It's heartbreaking because our education system has failed all of us. And again you go to China, even Mexico, Brazil – the education systems are valued. Ours are not in this country at the K through 12 level. It's amazing how that change has transpired in my lifetime."

That kind of puts things in a different perspective when it comes to where Caterpillar builds machines, doesn't it? We know there are many workers in central Illinois with the skills Caterpillar needs, but somebody – be it the high schools or the colleges – need to keep teaching those skills. You know that somebody somewhere else will teach them.

Also enlightening was Oberhelman's overall message to Washington.

"Check the politics at the door. An honest discussion with Americans, tell us how deep the hole is. We're going to have to raise revenues in some form or fashion and we're going to have to cut spending, including entitlements of all kinds, including the military. We all know this. Let's get on with it."

That's coming from the main architect of the trough planning Caterpillar did five or six years ago that got the company through this last recession relatively unscathed and made it the darling of Wall Street. I believe it also played a large part in Oberhelman's ascension to CEO when he replaced Jim Owens last year.

It's also another example of why Washington needs to listen to the country's business leaders.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or editor@thepeorian.com


About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).