Funny Business with Jane Wells

Why Your Daughter May Work for Caterpillar

I am at the biggest trade show in Vegas, at least by square footage (2.3 million) and weight (17 billion pounds of equipment). It's ConExpo, for the construction industry, which meets once every three years.

What's changed since they last met in 2005? Residential construction has imploded, hurting many of the firms here. But the world's their oyster.

For the first time, China has an equipment maker here, Liugong, showing off new equipment which may pose a serious threat to Caterpillar in China.

And this September, ConExpo will hold its first event in Russia. Which reminds me, while dining last night at Wing Lei inside the Wynn, I heard something I've never heard in Vegas before: Russian accents.

(I also saw Steve Wynn at a table with friends. I turned on my bionic ear and strained to hear. Caught snippets of conversation about hedge funds, but never heard anything about Eliot Spitzer. Hey, this is Vegas. No big deal.)

As for construction, there are a lot of what they call "headwinds"--not the least of which is the price of steel, up 30 percent. Many builders are finding it hard to get a steel supplier to lock in a price. Still, a company like Manitowoc says overseas business is so good its margins are actually improving.

But a bigger issue is on the horizon: a lack of skilled labor. Operating these machines takes training, and the industry estimates it needs one million new workers by 2012. This despite a construction slowdown!

So the Association of Equipment Manufacturers is helping to sponsor a ConExpo Teen Challenge, where teams of teens from around the country have qualified to compete in a building competition here. The hope is to get kids who played with Tonka Toys interested in the real deal.

Caterpillar has even sponsored an all-girl team.

Not sure what those teens will think of Vegas. The town has definitely brought its sexy back. Though I keep seeing advertisements for a show called "Menopause, the Musical." I can only imagine what a hot ticket that is...

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