TRAVERSE CITY, MI – As the nation gears up for the presidential election this fall, speakers at the Management Briefing Seminars here appear acutely aware of the high political stakes riding on the outcome.

J.T. Battenberg III, CEO, chairman and president of Delphi Corp., urges Wednesday’s crowd to “take an active interest in current and pending legislation,” and he refers to the regulatory environment as “very dangerous.”

“I’m worried about some of the proposals that are out there that are not business-friendly,” Battenberg tells Ward’s.

“It’s very important that we not let the auto industry get burdened with legislation that’s going to put us at a disadvantage,” he says. “We need a level playing field, and we cannot let ourselves deteriorate to the level of some of these other industries that did nothing until it’s too late. At the end of the day, what do they do? They ask for a bailout. And I don’t want to get in that position.”

Delphi’s J.T. Battenberg III

In addition, Battenberg says the industry has much to fear: potential legislation that inhibits free trade and closes open markets, potential tax increases on U.S. companies and anticipated increases in health-care and pension costs for U.S. companies.

“We – you and I – just can’t let that happen,” he says. “I believe that business leaders must be vocal and take a leading role in supporting and ensuring growth in the U.S.”

Battenberg even spoke about the federal budget deficit, noting that 2004 projections chart a decrease of $76 billion.

“Economic conditions now permit us to pursue a course of maximizing growth while significantly reducing the deficit,” he says. “This is why we must continue to pursue policies that will foster growth – like liberalizing trade, reforming our litigation system, making the tax cuts permanent and lowering tax rates – while we work to decrease the deficit.”

Among Battenberg’s top priorities are to “lean out” Delphi’s manufacturing operations and to address the shortage of engineers in the U.S., which Battenberg says will be a serious problem by 2010.

“ I think we’re going to wake up and be really short of skilled trades people,” he says.

Could Delphi outsource some U.S. engineering work to facilities overseas? “That’s an option,” he says. “The better option is to get more Americans to get involved in engineering and to get more degrees. We only have 62,000 engineering graduates (per year) in America.”

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com