Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc., headquartered in Peoria, Ill., gives the opening keynote address to guests attending the Mid-West Truckers Association annual truck show and convention. Oberhelman addressed the need to boost American infrastructure and education and encourage free trade in order to stay competitive with other nations, particularly emerging nations.
Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc., headquartered in Peoria, Ill., gives the opening keynote address to guests attending the Mid-West Truckers Association annual truck show and convention. Oberhelman addressed the need to boost American infrastructure and education and encourage free trade in order to stay competitive with other nations, particularly emerging nations.

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 York.

“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 is failing.

“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 said.

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 first.

“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 task.

“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 truck.

“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,” he said.