Car talk blues

Today’s NY Times has an article in the business section, G.M. Sees China, and the Chinese, in a Chevrolet, that begins:

YANTAI, China — Yang Luzhou, who lives here in an industrial town facing North Korea across the bay, is about as far as can be from Americana.

He is even farther from John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” the flag-waving soundtrack for Chevrolet’s latest marketing campaign in the United States.

But just the other day, the classic “Bear Went Over the Mountain” and the Confederate anthem “Dixie” wafted through the factory while he fiddled with a Chevrolet Aveo car door on a General Motors production line.

“I never thought I’d be building Chevrolet products,” he said. “I never heard of the Chevrolet brand when I was growing up.”

G.M. is hoping to change that for future generations of Chinese. It is counting on Mr. Yang, 27, and his 2,300 fellow assembly line workers here to help produce 200,000 cars this year as part of a giant bet to turn the Chevrolet brand into a household name in China.

It’s good news, certainly for the Chinese, that GM is trying to grow its market. But here at home the picture is not so rosy.

I was in Clare, Michigan, last weekend visiting my sister and her family. While there I learned that a local plant would close down, Mid-Michigan plant to close its doors. The plant was a supplier to Ford, and employed 139 local workers.

Losing 140 workers might not seem like much, but Clare’s population is just over 3000 people, so the economic impact will be substantial. The county unemployment rate was almost 10 per cent in 2004 and I understand it’s not any better now; it’s still among the poorest counties in central Michigan. Indeed, one of my sister’s favorite local restaurants was forced to close its doors just a few days ago due to lack of business.

This is a local story, but I learned some facts about our nation’s education system a few days back that show it is much more than a local problem:

20 million low-income children in K-12;12 million are not learning basic skills

58% of low-income 4th graders cannot read

61% of low-income 8th graders can’t do basic math

That’s bad enough. Here’s the real car talk kicker:

Half of all 17-year-olds lack skills needed to get a job in a modern auto plant.

Though I’m a big fan of the PBS radio show Car Talk since it’s so much fun to listen to, I can’t find any humor in this “car talk.” Just the blues.

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