Much has been said during the presidential campaign and the transition about the job losses in the rust belt. Indeed, Hillary’s loss has been largely attributed to her alleged lack of attention to the impact of trade policies that were said to be a factor in the very real predicament white men in the rust belt now face. But listening to Donald J Trump and his minions obscures the key reason for the dramatic job losses –automation!
By remaining ignorant about the real reason for massive job losses, we will never understand how to get ourselves out of the situation. From the political standpoint, it is easier for Mr. Trump to have villains to blame. All those foreigners — the Chinese, Mexicans, Vietnamese and others, producing cheap good overseas for paltry wages — are to blame. They are taking the bread out of the mouths of white families in crumbling towns like Allentown, Flint or Cleveland. It’s what Mr. Trump would like you to believe, because somehow Robbie the Robot isn’t as good a villain.
Let’s consider some essential facts. In the early sixties, roughly a quarter to one third of all US workers were employed in manufacturing jobs. Now that number has fallen below ten percent. Introduction of sophisticated robots in factories accounts for the bulk of this loss. And these jobs aren’t coming back. Not only that, but economists estimate that nearly half of all jobs extant today are at risk for being lost to automation. The robots will keep coming!
It turns out that if you are employed in jobs such as security, transportation and logistics, office support, telemarketing, or work as a cashier, rental agent, delivery person or even an accountant, you are at risk of losing your job to a machine. And though its cold comfort, China and other economies are facing similar problems. The march of automation isn’t going to stop. So, the only rational response should be, “OK, what can we do about it?”
There is a great deal we can do. But, there aren’t any immediate magic bullets for someone who finds himself, or herself, dismissed from a job today, into which a machine has stepped in. The fix in my view is longer term, but if it is to work at all, we must begin now. The new jobs will require far more mathematical, technological and scientific knowledge and skill than most US high school graduates have.
In the pre-robot economy, if one graduated from high school with an average, or even low academic record, one could gain an entry level factory job, get on-the-job training and then gradually move up to the point where the reward was a decent middle class wage. No more.
Today’s jobs require far more and few of our graduates have what it takes. This is why thousands of well-paying jobs go literally unfilled. There are no skilled employees available and no robot can fill in the gap. Just this past July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 5.9 million unfilled jobs! The manufacturing sector has become increasingly more sophisticated, requiring more education.
One statistic that sums up the current problem better than all the pundits is the standing of American high school students in mathematics and science compared to their peers around the world. The Pew survey of International Student Assessment showed that American 15-year olds scored lower in math than students in 34 other industrialized countries (behind Italy, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Slovenia, Czech Republic and many others). In science, the picture was almost equally embarrassing, with US students behind 26 countries.
In the last several years, 40 states in the US have adopted Common Core, a set of performance standards, which may be one step toward graduating high school students who as adults would be able to compete with international peers for jobs that require high competency in math and science. But, alas, our new president wants to sweep Common Core away, along with other markers of progress.
Dumping TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) will do nothing to produce a workforce capable of wrestling with the robots. Only serious attention to and investment in mathematics and science education will do that.