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Username: Karl

Post Number: 1088
Registered: 09-2005
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Posted on Friday, February 03, 2006 - 2:14 am: Edit PostDelete PostMove Post (Moderator/Admin Only)

Making the Grade

As Detroit Slashes Car Jobs, Southern Towns Pick Up Slack

Overseas Firms Pour In Seeking Commitment to Education And High-Skill Workers
Osceola's Charter-School Spat
February 1, 2006; Page A1

OSCEOLA, Ark. -- Long-time industrial strongholds such as Michigan are losing manufacturing jobs as the U.S.'s auto industry struggles to compete. But massive job cuts by Detroit have overshadowed an important change in U.S. manufacturing. Asian and European auto companies, looking for skilled workers to make complex products, have created nearly enough new jobs in the U.S. to make up the difference.

This small city of about 9,000, set amid soybean and cotton fields on the west bank of the Mississippi, is one place that has benefited. In 2003, Osceola persuaded Denso Corp., an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corp., to locate a new plant in town producing car air-conditioning and heating systems. The usual bevy of financial incentives helped, but for Denso, there was a clinching factor: Osceola's efforts to improve local education by creating a charter school.

Denso "saw that the linkage between industry and education was very, very strong," says Denso's Osceola plant manager, Jerry McGuire, who was part of his company's selection team. "We got the strong feeling that in Osceola, education was being integrated with industry."

The new jobs buoying the U.S. manufacturing sector require that workers have a decent education. It is the towns that understand this new math that are winning the work. Employees need skills to operate and maintain complex, computer-controlled machinery.

Top-tier automotive suppliers such as Denso, Robert Bosch GmbH and Delphi Corp. use similar equipment and techniques to make competing products. The difference between them, therefore, often comes down to whose workers can produce the most goods at the highest quality. "It takes a deeper understanding than just pushing the red and green buttons to start and shut off those machines," Mr. McGuire says.

Dan Gaudette, Nissan Motor Co.'s North American manufacturing chief, says it is hard to find highly skilled workers in Tennessee and Mississippi, where it produces cars and trucks. "That's why education is critical," he says. To cope, Nissan runs after-school programs to help students familiarize themselves with robotics.

The plants built by Asian and European companies produce complex products or auto parts that are too expensive to ship to the U.S. for assembly. They have helped sustain U.S. auto-manufacturing employment at about one million workers. That is roughly the same as in 1990, despite the loss of tens of thousands of jobs at General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler unit and some of their big suppliers. That total doesn't include recently announced future job cuts.

Denso's top executives say they expect to expand their work force to meet demand from Toyota and other Asian auto makers flocking to southern states. Currently at 380, Denso's work force in Osceola could increase to more than 3,000, company executives say.

Denso executives know Osceola still faces big challenges in improving its education but say they were attracted by the town's commitment to tackling its problems. The charter-school plan succeeded only after big compromises and a rancorous debate featuring accusations of racism. Even now, test scores both at the charter school and other public schools tend to plummet after sixth grade.

Toyota truck affiliate Hino Motors Ltd. recently picked Marion, Ark., 45 miles south of Osceola, to make axles for pick-up trucks. Plant manager Makoto Arakawa, like his Denso counterpart, has found it hard to recruit experienced repair and maintenance workers from northeastern Arkansas.

"More often than not the best talent we can find in job candidates are technicians with experience in fixing machines at, say, bakeries," Mr. Arakawa says. "They come to us with a lot of confidence -- misguided confidence -- that they can hack it at an automotive factory."

Osceola was featured in Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" under the name Plum Point. Since then, it has taken some hard knocks from globalization. Farms that sustained the economy faltered as overseas competition undermined cotton and soybean prices. Textile and other factories took up the slack, bringing an economic boom to the community in the mid-1980s. But in 2001, the town's big Fruit of the Loom plant shut as the company dropped unprofitable lines of business.

Efforts to replace the jobs failed. Even Osceola's low wages couldn't compete with those in Latin America and Asia.

"Our community was in crisis," recalled Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore as he drove past the dilapidated shell of the Fruit of the Loom factory. "We almost hit that point of no return."

To some, Osceola's problem was obvious. Steven Brothers, a native of Osceola and a 1984 graduate of Osceola High School, runs the American Greetings Corp. plant in town and employs 1,300 workers. He says he had trouble filling jobs because most candidates lacked math and reading proficiency -- "like your basic multiplication and division." Students in the district scored well-below the state average on standardized tests.

In 1997, the Osceola school district was officially designated by the state board of education as being in "academic distress." If it didn't show improvement, the state could take over the Osceola public-school system. The poor schools made it hard for local companies to recruit workers or executives with school-age children.

Mr. Brothers started a program to allow Osceola school students to tour American Greetings's facilities to see what possibilities lay open to them. He encouraged plant managers to mentor students in reading and was narrowly defeated when he ran for a seat on Osceola's board of education.

In the late 1990s, he and other local industrialists formed a Plant Manager Roundtable, part of the Chamber of Commerce. They began discussing possible solutions with public-school administrators and Mayor Kennemore, such as after-school reading and mentoring programs aligning school curricula more in line with practical industry needs, but little came of the effort.

Mayor Kennemore, Mr. Brothers and other local citizens saw an opportunity in 1999 when Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee signed legislation to fund a dozen charter schools in the state. The Osceola leaders came up with a plan to open their own charter school. It would operate outside the town's school system but with public funds. The curriculum would be designed to unite education with needs of industry, such as an emphasis on practical math skills and a work ethic that included punctuality.

The initiative touched off a fierce fight. At one public hearing in late 1999, teachers, preachers and citizens said the charter school would siphon money and teachers from existing schools. Critics also argued that the proposal was aimed at educating white children in a quasi private-school setting at taxpayer expense. Roughly 80% of public-school students in Osceola are African-American.

"It was racist and it still is," says Harry Whitted, a black community leader and city councilman who had two school-age daughters at the time.

Messrs. Kennemore and Brothers say they always intended the school to be half white and half black. The mayor didn't help his case the first time he briefed the community on the charter-school plan. He held the gathering at what was then an all-white country club.

"Looking back, the country club probably wasn't the best place to hold this meeting," the mayor says now.

A divided Osceola school board voted down the proposal, as did the state board of education. Its proponents didn't give up, and in the fall of 2000, weary combatants on both sides agreed to a compromise: The new school would be under the authority of the local school district, which would set up its curriculum and admissions policies. The charter proponents would get to sit on an advisory board.

The charter school opened in the summer of 2002 as the Academic Center of Excellence. Its student body is roughly half white and half African-American. In the 2003-2004 school year, 41% of sixth graders were proficient in reading and 54% were proficient in math. Both scores were near or above state average, a big improvement over city schools' previous performance.

In some charter-school grades "we are beating some of the lily white schools in the state," Mayor Kennemore declares.

Denso came knocking on Osceola's door that year as part of a survey of potential locations in the South. It was combing more than two dozen sites in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. Denso wanted to be close to Toyota plants in Texas and southern Indiana and a Honda plant in Alabama. Like many other Asian auto companies, it also liked the relatively weak hold of unions in the South.

Osceola and the state of Arkansas offered a number of financial incentives. They gave Denso property to build on as well as big discounts on utility rates and promises to improve roads and other infrastructure.

The charter school was one of the first places in town Mayor Kennemore and Mississippi County officials took the Denso search team. The team also met with American Greetings's Mr. Brothers, who is now head of the town's board of education, and other representatives from local industry.

Repeatedly, town representatives told Denso's Mr. McGuire about the lengths to which they had gone to realize the charter school. "It was that aggressiveness that really impressed us," Mr. McGuire says.

In July 2003, Denso agreed to build its new factory in Osceola and it began hiring the following year. Of the 380 employees at the plant, an overwhelming majority come from Osceola or the surrounding area.

Since then, Arkansas has made further efforts to improve its work force. Last year, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao presented a $5.9 million grant to the state to help build an automotive-training center in northeastern Arkansas. It would address a shortage of workers in robotics, advanced welding and computer-controlled machining.

Denso itself has become more involved in efforts to expand local education and training opportunities. With its help, Mississippi County is gearing up to offer a program that offers college-level technical and occupational courses to high-school students. The idea came from a program created by the economic-development agency of Battle Creek, Mich., where Denso also produces air-conditioning and heating systems. Osceola officials visited in 2004 to take a look at Battle Creek's program.

Osceola's school district has continued to struggle, however, even though test scores have improved. During the 2003-2004 school year, only 22% of public-school sixth graders were proficient in reading and only 23% were proficient in math. The scores were well below state average of 42% and 41%, respectively.

Academic performance for many students slumps after the sixth grade "and then students' performance stays low thereafter," Mr. McGuire says. In 2004, Denso launched a mentoring program for these students to try and overcome the problem.

Mr. McGuire says Denso encountered bad schools throughout the South. "So it became an issue and we thought: Is there a future here? Are they doing things that are going to drive them forward? Do they have that commitment to it? We saw that continuously in Osceola."
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Username: Livernoisyard

Post Number: 162
Registered: 10-2004
Posted From:
Posted on Friday, February 03, 2006 - 2:50 am: Edit PostDelete PostMove Post (Moderator/Admin Only)

There was a blurb on WABC radio last night about another huge wave of skilled foreign workers being allowed to enter due to the shortage of educated specialists here, especially engineers and scientists, etc. No big news there, as that has been occurring right along.

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