America is sitting on the edge of a fiscal cliff and unless changes are made, our economy may fall off it once more. Like Greece, Spain and Italy, our debt is great, our unemployment is high and our political will is wimpy.

To prevent an economic collapse, we need to work on deficit reduction, job development and reducing regulations. No one has all the answers about what should be done, but we do know that job growth brings in tax revenues, while giving people the means to buy consumer goods. Creating more jobs, and getting more Americans employed, is our number one, most critical issue. 

Job declines remain at 8.2 percent and it is uncertain when they will drop lower. Without higher employment numbers, it will be difficult for the economy to get out of its doldrums. The government response is in a stall mode, with no quick fix in sight. 

Our economic engine needs retooling in education, manufacturing innovations and energy use in order to prevent a deep second recession.

Education needs drastic improvement. Our schools are not doing a good job in math, science and high-tech innovations.  Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, an international organization of 34 countries, compares test scores in subjects such as math, for its 34-member nations. In 2010, the United States student scores ranked 24th. 

There are still plenty of well-paying jobs available in this country, but many of them require math, science, engineering or technology skills. A lot of businesses have to hire foreign workers, and bring them here, to fill their empty positions, because not enough of our young people have adequate training in technical areas.

Part of the reason is that not enough teachers are strong in those subjects, and the other is that too few students are willing to take the necessary math and science classes. New teachers in those specialties will need to be hired and students need to be required, by state education departments, to take more classes in math and science, because the future, higher-paying jobs will be for those who have skills in those subjects.

Many poor and middle-class families don’t have the money or lack incentives to encourage their children to go to college. For those who don’t go on for higher education, there are still many skilled vocational jobs that pay good wages in plumbing, electrical, carpentry, truck driving and skilled mechanics trades. Government service positions like police, fire department and commercial licensed skilled workers pay good wages for high school graduates, but the best paying jobs in the future will be given to college graduates with strong skills in math, engineering, health sciences and computer-related work.

Manufacturing efficiencies, along with technological innovations, also are needed to revitalize our economy’s growth. Automation in manufacturing has resulted in fewer jobs. To prevent skilled job shortages resulting from layoffs, we need to develop incentives to help move unemployed workers and capital to new, growing sectors of the economy.  We need to stimulate small business startups, neighborhood micro-businesses, and small business subcontractors, with manufacturer set-asides that will increase future job growth.

Our government must also reassess the lowering of tax rates on American manufacturers, to match foreign countries’ rates that are much lower than ours. It can affect competitive exporting of more American- made goods to overseas buyers.

We are still the most competitive manufacturing country in the world. Although our labor rates are high, foreign labor rates will continue to rise. And with reduced tax rates on American manufacturing companies, jobs will grow, even if our wages are higher than competition overseas.

Energy savings advances in the future can result in using less energy in our daily lives and in our businesses. We are starting to drill more oil and gas wells in America, which will lessen dependence on foreign supply sources. Wind mills and solar energy are growing in our communities. We are supplying more natural gas for heating, which is cheaper than oil. 

Increased global demand will limit energy supplies in the next decade. Americans will face industry and home use shortages, unless restrictions on electricity consumption are put in place. One solution would be for more manufacturing, commercial and home users to buy electricity in off-peak hours, at lower rates, and store that electricity in special brick-lined tanks. 

What we need is less politics and more retraining and retooling for future jobs.

— Bernard Featherman is a business columnist for the Journal Tribune and former president of the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce.

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