ELYRIA - The United States must keep innovating to compete in a world economy, Lorain native Josue "Joe" Robles told a crowd at Lorain County Community College on Friday.
China expects to graduate 600,000 engineers this year and India about 300,000, while America "will be lucky" if we graduate 10,000 engineers, said Robles, who spent 28 years in the Army before retiring as a major general in 1994.
The current downturn has resulted in "a dogfight in the business world," said Robles, president and chief executive officer of USAA, a financial services company serving some 7.3 million veterans.
"We haven't had a turmoil like this ... since the Great Depression," he said. "I see us coming out of it a little bit, but we're far from being out of hot water."
The keys to inspiring success in young people are family, education and community, said Robles, who spoke at a luncheon/symposium fundraiser sponsored by Leadership Lorain County and the Lorain County Community College Foundation to raise money for student scholarships.
Robles, described by The Christian Science Monitor in 2009 as the "No. 1 Veteran in Business," recalled dropping out of the sky at the age of 3 when his parents came to the United States from Puerto Rico.
"I remember it like it was yesterday, flying in a DC-3 plane through the clouds and seeing the Statue of Liberty," he said.
His father, who got a job at U.S. Steel in Lorain, had a fourth-grade education and his mother a ninth-grade education, but they made sure their children valued schooling.
Responsibility and hard work came early for young Josue, who joked that he became a storekeeper at the age of 11 after his boss got arrested for running a numbers game.
"For three or four days, I ran that store," Robles said to laughs from the crowd.
Robles was among the first students at LCCC when a light classload made him eligible for the draft, and he headed to Vietnam.
Gazing at student cadets in the crowd, Robles said the military is "a tough profession" and "not for everybody," but Americans should hug every serviceman or servicewoman they see.
While in Lorain, Robles said he tried to look up his old house, but it had been torn down and "a lot better-looking homes are standing in its place."
Robles said he's been to many hard-luck towns, and Lorain is doing relatively well and "there's not a lot of blight."
The city's annual International Festival was a favorite haunt, he said.
"I love to go down there and see all the sights and sounds ... and taste the food," he said. "You ought to keep nurturing that diversity."
Robles credited his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Thomas, for making him a voracious reader and his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Wooster, for instilling discipline.
"She would slap you with that ruler, but she made me focus on what I was doing," he recalled. "I wish I could go back and talk to both of them."
After his speech, Robles answered questions and received a crystal plaque that stated a diversity scholarship at LCCC would be named in his honor.
During a question-and-answer period, Robles said he is a "conservative soldier" but thinks the time is coming for gays to serve openly in the armed services.
"We're in a different world than I served in," said Robles, who had active duty posts in Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Middle East.
Allowing gays to serve openly "is probably the right thing to do," but should be implemented carefully with ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Robles said.
"Anybody who thinks we're going to get out of these areas quickly doesn't understand how it works," said Robles, whose last posts were director of the Army budget and commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division. "We're still in Korea."