“Coincidence is the mother of invention.” I know that’s not right, but all of my faithful readers know how much I like to make things up. Anyway, it’s got to be the mother of something, and that got me wondering about the future and led me on the path to this column.

It was, in fact, a series of coincidences or, perhaps more accurately, events and chance meetings that got me thinking about a problem that we are going to have to face. We tend to think of this problem in global terms, but its effects will be felt close to home.

It began last summer when I met an engineer from Massachusetts, who was beginning to plan his retirement to Maine. He appeared to be a few years younger than me, so my usual nosiness and probably jealousy got the better of me and I inquired about his reasons for retirement. Surprisingly, it wasn’t to enjoy Maine’s “quality of life,” although that was certainly a draw, but rather, it was a series of events in his company that led him to his decision.

He worked as an engineer for a company that made things – actually made things in factories in the United States. Steadily, his company was going “offshore” (a convenient euphemism for India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, et. al.) to have these things made. Though somewhat disturbing, at least the design and engineering of these “things” were still done in the good old U.S. of A. Then it happened, he was informed to start planning to lay off his engineering staff as that was now going offshore, as well. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, he decided to do something about living the good life in Maine.

The second event happened a couple of weeks ago. I met a retired software engineer, again a couple of years younger than me. During our conversation, he mentioned that any engineer our age was likely not working in engineering any longer. As we design and manufacture less and less in this country, and we can buy these services so much more cheaply offshore, opportunities for what we used to assume were safe vocations are drifting away.

The third event that made these thoughts coalesce was last week’s annual career day for sophomores at Scarborough High School. This is an event that I have taken part in for a couple of years and I applaud the Scarborough Chamber of Commerce and high dchool guidance staff for organizing this event. I do not find talking to sophomores about their future employment an easy task, not because of them, but because of me. If I could remember that far back to my sophomore year, I bet I wasn’t giving a whole lot of thought to what I was going to be when I grew up. But, sadly things are different now.

One year, wanting to make my presentation as interesting as possible and being hopelessly addicted to corny witticisms and anecdotes, I made up a little story to illustrate my point. I talked about being in the sneaker business and how in the old days, sneakers were made in the shoe shops of Maine. Graduate from high school and you could get a reasonably good job, buy a house, raise a family and then retire with a pension. Modest but certainly OK. The big money was made by the people who designed, engineered and marketed the sneaker. Another important group is those trend makers who come up with colors and logos. After explaining that the sneakers were now made off shore, I wanted to show them that the good jobs were only available with education beyond high school. As is often the case, two weeks later I read in the Wall Street Journal that the design and engineering of a popular brand of sneakers are being done in India.

OK, so what’s my point in all this? I am not walking around with a sign, “The End is Near,” but I am sounding an alarm, and I am sounding that alarm to all different levels of government.

Technical skills are imperative to making a living in the future, and they have to realize this. On the local level, we have to make sure we provide the necessary tools to get these kids ready for life after high school.

The state has to make sure that we are providing the education beyond high school so that if we are ever successful in bringing high-tech manufacturing back to this country and, I hope, to Maine, we have a work force capable of doing the job.

Harvey Rosenfeld is president of the Scarborough Economic Development Corp.


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