PEORIA, Ill. — Doug Oberhelman spoke in a purr, not a hiss,
and his claws weren’t out, but the chief executive officer of Caterpillar Inc.
made his points just the same.
To stay competitive in the world marketplace, America needs
to do better.
“We need to be competitive. What does that mean?” said
Oberhelman, who opened the Mid-West Truckers Association Truck Show and
Convention in Peoria with a keynote address.
Oberhelman noted that in his travels to nations such as
China, the rate at which competitor nations are outspending the U.S. in
infrastructure is painfully obvious.
“When I go to other countries, I see investments in
infrastructure at a multiple rate of what we’re doing in this country. For
almost 40 years, we have been investing less and less in this country in
infrastructure, while our competitors, particularly our emerging competitors,
China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, lots of countries, are investing more and
more as a percent of their (gross domestic product),” he said.
Cat’s CEO compared and contrasted two airports — Beijing
Capital International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New
“All I have to do is land in Beijing, at the Beijing
airport, which is one of the most modern and sophisticated airports in the world
and get whisked straight through, spending very little time in the customs line,
get right through to do my business,” said Oberhelman, who contrasted that with
arrival at JFK.
“Those who have been to JFK, it’s a national disgrace. We
are welcoming investors, customers, through many of our bigger airports in this
country, and we’re not proud of our airports.
“These are guests in our country. They are either bringing
investment or are buying our products or want to buy our products, and we make
them stand in a two- or three-hour customs line just to get here.”
Oberhelman noted that the U.S. major airport as welcome mat
“Everywhere I go, foreign investment is welcome, and to me,
the airport is kind of the symbol of how welcome you are in a country,” he
He also observed the shoddy condition of the U.S. internal
infrastructure, no news to those in the audience.
“The infrastructure in this country is in tough shape. I
don’t have to tell all of you that. You drive on those roads every day. You see
the bridges. You see what we’re up against,” he said.
Oberhelman urged those in the audience to keep lines of
communication open with state and national lawmakers to urge a funded capital
program for the state, which will take action on the state’s fiscal situation
“Keep a dialogue going with our political leaders in
Illinois to make sure that we get our financial and fiscal situation in
balance,” he said.
Oberhelman has led Caterpillar since 2010 and has been a
prominent voice in the calls for Illinois political leaders to find a solution
to the state’s financial quagmire, particularly the pension liability crisis.
“Nobody wants to be told no, and when it comes to pension
problems in the state, there are only two ways to fix it or a combination of two
ways, higher taxes or fewer benefits,” said Oberhelman, who acknowledged that
political leaders, even as they have contributed to the crisis, have a difficult
“I believe and understand the depth and the gravity of the
challenge they face, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. It has to be.”
One of the challenges that Caterpillar, along with other
industries, faces is to source a qualified, educated workforce.
“We need a strong workforce. We need engineers, welders,
trained people in this country who, for some reason, we’re finding less and less
of,” Oberhelman said.
He noted that Caterpillar partners with community colleges
throughout the world to train and educate service technicians and that the
company works to create and maintain manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and abroad.
“We find something that just blows my mind, and that is we
reject, for an entry-level manufacturing job today, nearly 60 percent of
applicants. Some of that is basic reading skills, writing skills, math skills,
but one of the biggest ones is failure of the drug test,” he said.
Oberhelman voiced the concern that while the U.S. spends
some $700 billion a year on K-12 education, other countries – again — may be
winning the race.
“When we look at other countries that are competing with us
and they are educating at a better or more rapid rate than we are, what happens
to us in a generation? Education is critical and important, and we’ve got to get
our arms around it,” he said.
He recognized in his opening remarks the presence of Andreas
Brand, the mayor of Friedrichshofen, Germany, a sister city to Peoria, as well
as Bruce Altorfer, president of Altorfer Inc., and his son, Derek Altorfer,
executive vice president of Altorfer, a prominent Caterpillar dealer in Iowa,
Illinois and Missouri.
Oberhelman also touted one of the company’s more recent
rollouts, which could be seen — minus the familiar Caterpillar yellow paint — as
part of the Altorfer display on the trade show floor: The Caterpillar on-highway
“We did reintroduce our on-highway vehicle that we’re having
great success with. We’ve got several hundred of those trucks on the road today,
and we’re very happy with that product and I’m hoping to see a lot more sales,”