What Do You Think?

Economic News Has Been Good Lately But the Job Market is Troublesome


Can you believe it? It's the end of another year and there are still more than a handful of items to tidy up as we careen into 2004. Let me use this month's column for a few of them.

As I mentioned last time, the economic news around us has been good and seemingly getting better all the time, so let's take a minute or two to look ahead to the opportunities and concerns for 2004 and beyond.

Our annual Market Update in the [Nowhere to Go But Up-Dec. '03 p8] provides a pretty good summary of the reasons to be optimistic about the coming year. I won't repeat them here, but I encourage you to look through the story and see how they resonate with you.

I have one concern with the news at the moment. By the time Q1 2004 closes out, I really do hope these grumblings turn out to be nothing more than background noise, but I'm a little reluctant to do giant cartwheels over the big increases in labor productivity we've seen since mid-year. We obviously need productivity improvement. Our standard of living wouldn't have been constantly getting better for the last 200 years without labor productivity, so, fundamentally, it's genuinely good news. But, I do worry that the if the recovery doesn't significantly revitalize the job market, it might eventually wear down the consumer spending resilence that kept things from being even worse during the past few years. That could curtail real economic recovery before its time.

This has been by some estimates the roughest sustained job slump perhaps since the depression. The temptation to keep squeezing the body count, by sending jobs overseas or continuing to do without--at the expense of quality--even as revenue picks up, can't be dismissed. Some businesses have acquired some bad habits these past several years.

But, for now, I'd like to use this space for a highly unscientific ad hoc poll about what you think are the issues that machine builders need to watch out for in 2004. If the order book does begin to fatten up, what might be the automation and control worries that keep you up at night?

Based on what we editors have heard on the street during 2003, we'd offer up these potential problems as a starting point for your verdicts:

--Lack of skilled technical help

--Helping customers migrate to new machine controls

--Making your own migration from proprietary to open architecture


--Helping customers justify new machine controls

--Dealing with competitive cost pressures, domestic or overseas

--Growing after-sales support obligations


--You're off the mark, Joe. Here's the real issue: (please specify)

I would appreciate it if you'd e-mail, (jfeeley@putman.net) with your perspective. The more you have to say about how you'll be trying to overcome these issues, the better. It'll certainly help us stay focused in 2004. And listen, if you'd like to write a story or column about it, all the better. Just get in touch.

By the way, that Market Update article also provides me with the opportunity to introduce its author, our new managing editor Steve Kuehn. Steve assumes the position (he found that an interesting choice of words) as the result of a well-deserved promotion for Dave Fusaro. Dave has taken on the chief editor desk for our sibling magazine, Food Processing.

Steve brings solid credentials to the job, with previous editorial responsibilities for industrial trade magazines, and media and communications roles with several major automation suppliers.

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