Ultimately, the purpose of markets is the exchange of information. How much do you think something is worth? How much do I think something is worth? If we can find a common price, we can do business.

The underlying reason for much of our current economic weakness is that we just can’t find that common price.

What is a house worth? I used to think I had a pretty good idea. But looking at the “for sale” signs up and down the street now and the prices that go with them, I have to admit, I haven’t a clue. And neither do lots of other people.

How many houses are on the market now? How many are in foreclosure? How many will be in foreclosure in six months? Who even owns the houses on the market? A local bank? A national bank? A hedge fund? A pension fund?

When information that virtually everyone believed to be true — owning a home is a good investment, part of the American dream — suddenly proves not to be true, markets get very confused and prices tend to fall.

Sooner or later, venturesome individuals make guesses that prove to be correct, or not, and the process of price discovery proceeds on its bumpy way until some new consensus emerges about what something is worth.

The housing market is the most obvious place where this exploration and discovery process is occurring today. But it is by no means the only place.

Another is higher education — one more formerly unquestioned pillar of the American dream.

As annual tuition costs push up beyond $50,000, and graduates saddled with home mortgage-size debts face uncertain prospects in a labor market where one in 10 participants struggles to find any kind of job, more young people (and their parents) are questioning the current price-to-value relationship. And the expansion of community colleges and online programs shows that they are searching for new, less expensive ways to prepare for life in the 21st century.

Another area where I think price discovery, i.e., searching markets for information about hidden or unappreciated value, will occur more frequently in the near future is employment in manufacturing. Here, the conventional wisdom is again clear — manufacturing is dead; it’s all gone to China; the only jobs in manufacturing are dirty and filled by old people hanging on until they can retire.

Some of this information is correct. Manufacturing employees are older. For the Maine economy as a whole, 22 percent of employees are in the 55-plus age cohort; for the manufacturing sector, it’s 25 percent. For the economy as a whole, 32 percent of employees are in the under-35 age cohort; for the manufacturing sector, it’s only 20 percent.

But just as in housing and education, where imbalances lead to new opportunities, there are signs of emerging value in the manufacturing labor market.

While manufacturing employees in the under-35 age cohort make up only 17 percent of the total cohort, they account for 25 percent of the cohort’s new hires and nearly 40 percent of its total job creation for the most recent period reported by the Department of Labor (the four quarters ending in the second quarter of 2010).

In a word, the manufacturing sector — in this slow-to-no job growth economy — is accounting for more than its share of overall job growth and way more than its share of growth for the under-35 age cohort.

In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, this job growth is accompanied by vastly higher pay.

In 2010, the average monthly pay of a new hire in the under-19 age cohort in the Maine economy as a whole was $540; for the same age cohort entering manufacturing, the average was $841 — a 60 percent premium.

For the 19-to-21 age cohort, the differential was $1,764 per month in manufacturing versus $1,037 per month for the economy as a whole — a 70 percent premium for manufacturing.

And while that premium declines slightly for the 22-to-24 and 25-to-34 age cohorts, it remains above 50 percent.

The average new hire in manufacturing aged 25 to 34 in 2010 earned $2,927 per month. His/her compadre in the economy as a whole earned $1,945 per month.

This is critical information, that, as it is more fully understood and disseminated, will affect all players in the labor market — young people considering their futures, educators seeking to demonstrate their value in a more skeptical market and employers seeking the skilled work force that is the key to their survival.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]