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Robert F. Bihr Jr., vice-president of Associated Industries of Kentucky, gives a presentation to Boyd County High School students about earnings for workers in the state on Tuesday. The image of a new convertible Mustang is on the projection screen in the background.

“Follow the money.”

With those three words of advice, encapsulating a lifetime of experience, Robert F. Bihr Jr. set students at Boyd County on the trail of promising careers Tuesday.

And Bihr dangled an attractive piece of bait in front of the students when he projected the image of a shiny red convertible onto the screen at the front of the room.

The car represented the difference in yearly earnings between workers in the service sector and those in skilled industrial and manufacturing jobs, he said.

“It makes young people think about manufacturing in a different way,” said Bihr, who is vice-president of Associated Industries of Kentucky, a manufacturers’ trade association.

His mission for the association is to introduce high school students to the earnings potential in industrial careers and the educational background they’ll need for such jobs.

If a service job pays, on average, $17,800 per year while a factory assembly job brings in $28,700, the difference is the equivalent of a new, loaded Mustang every two and a half years, he told the students, all juniors and seniors.

“As long as you’re going to be working 40 hours a week, you might as well follow the bucks,” he said.

For workers with higher skills that take community college or other post-secondary training, the margin is higher still, he said. “But the other side of the coin is that you don’t just walk out and pick up a job in a factory anymore,” he said.

Skilled workers can make from half a million to $1 million more over a lifetime than those unskilled positions, he said.

The demand is high, with many companies unable to fill all the openings they have. “Eighty percent of manufacturers can’t find enough skilled workers,” he said.

The biggest difference Bihr has seen in manufacturing in the last 40 years, bigger than computers even, is the stiffening of quality standards and the shifting of quality control from inspectors to the workers themselves.

When workers at an auto plant, for instance, are charged with keeping defective parts down to one in millions, they have to keep meticulous records, record and chart everything, he said. That means they require extensive command of math skills to calculate the statistics.

“So when a kid asks, why do I need to know that, that’s why,” he said.

The students who attended Bihr’s presentation were all enrolled in algebra 3 and pre-calculus classes. They were chosen because the presentation is a pilot and hopefully Bihr will come back to talk to other students, including those in earlier grades, said counselor Marcia Salisbury.

“We want them to be aware of the demand in these career areas,” Salisbury said.

High school students need to know their options, said Otis Sturgill, an 18-year-old senior. He has college plans, but many of his peers don’t, he said. “(Bihr) showed that there are choices in life where you can make the money without going for a four-year degree.”

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