A brief announcement on National Public Radio at the end of March reported that Radio Flyer, while keeping its headquarters in Chicago, plans to outsource manufacturing to China before the end of this year. Thus the Radio Flyer, arguably the most famous little red wagon in the world, becomes just the latest icon of American manufactured products to move offshore. According to the report the Chicago plant where the metal wagons are built is too expensive to maintain, and about half of the 90 people in the plant will lose their jobs because manufacturing the Radio Flyer in China will cost less.

These announcements always stimulate arguments over whether outsourcing is a good thing or a bad thing, and whether we're losing or gaining more jobs in one sector or another. Lost amid these arguments is the equally pressing issue of whether skilled and talented people are actually available to fill some jobs. The tool room may not have the cachet of the engineering department, but without it no manufacturing plant will long continue to manufacture.

The lament about the shortage of skilled machinists and toolmakers has been endemic for more than 20 years, throughout the machine tool industry and elsewhere. The pool of experienced talent isn't any deeper today, but some companies are doing something about it. For example, ATS Automation Tooling Systems (Cambridge, Ontario, Canada) has an 8,000 hour apprentice program that, in partnership with nearby Conestoga College, has produced more than 300 toolmakers, machinists and electricians, most of whom have remained with the company.

We're just finishing up with our annual State of the Profession survey, and you'll see the report by Austin Weber, senior editor, in the ASSEMBLY Buyers Guide, which you'll receive in July. Looking toward the future of the companies where you practice your profession is a logical extension, and we would like to learn more about the foundations that American assembly plants are laying to ensure their continued success.

What is your company doing to ensure that it continues to have the talent in place to design new products, and develop the new assembly processes to build them? Does your company offer engineering students the opportunity to participate in cooperative work programs, with a view toward future employment?

Does your company encourage high school graduates to enroll in a formal training program so that machinists, electricians and other skilled tradespeople will be available to build and maintain your critical manufacturing equipment and processes? What's your personal role in any of these activities that build toward your company's future? Please let us know. You can respond by e-mail to me at heglandd@bnpmedia.com or write to us at the address in the adjacent column.