by Tom Regan
It’s not the greatest job in the world, but it’s a living. The money is good. It can be a bit boring sometimes however – you tend to do the same thing every day. But you’ve been doing it for a long time. And now that you’re in your late 40s, maybe early 50s, you can see yourself just riding this job into retirement.
Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there’s a very good chance that within the next 10 years, maybe even sooner, you’re going to lose your job. But what takes your job away won’t be that your company switched production to China or Mexico, it will be technology. Maybe something as simple as a piece of software, or as complex as a robot – regardless it will allow your employer to lower costs and improve productivity. And you’ll be out in the street.
Pres. Donald Trump loves to complain that China and Mexico have been stealing jobs from American workers and that he plans to bring those jobs back. And you can see why this campaign promise resonated with so many people – there are five million fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States now than there were in 2010. Bringing those jobs back is nice idea but it’s totally pie-in-the-sky and not doable. Because the truth is that even if you brought those manufacturing jobs back they would probably be taken by a machine and not a human.
There’s a lot of recent research to back this up. A study by two Ball State professors showed that between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost to technology and not to trade. If that’s not bad enough, a report from McKinsey showed that 49% of worker activities can be replaced by technology. And that number is only going to grow, particularly in jobs that require repetitive tasks. Jobs, for instance, like in accounting, food preparation, or even some aspects of journalism, will be replaced by machines or robots that can do the job faster and allow increases in productivity.
So why is more attention not paid to this? There are probably two answers: 1) American businesses like to make money and cut costs. Their concerns are for their shareholders and not for their employees. If making more profit means replacing humans with machines, then so be it. They just don’t like to talk about it a lot; 2) it’s much easier for unemployed 50 year-old white guys to blame foreigners or outsiders than to blame technology. The steelworker in Pennsylvania has a much easier time blaming his lost job on a worker earning less in China, then struggling with the fact that technology made his job redundant.
Yet there is a way to combat this problem. It’s called education. For instance, in late 2016 there were over 300,000 manufacturing jobs available in the United States, numbers similar to what were available before the 2008 recession. There is, however, another important factor. Most of these jobs require what are known as “high skill sets” which means that they require a level of education that will enable any worker to operate technologically advanced machinery. To go back to our steelworker in Pennsylvania, chances are he or she is not interested in returning to school to learn a whole new skill set. It’s just much easier to complain about China and Mexico.
Meanwhile, most other Americans are ignoring the writing on the wall. A study by the Pew Research Center show that 80% of Americans think that their job will existed in its current form in 50 years. It’s just whistling past the graveyard.
It boils down to this. American jobs are being lost to technology, not to trade. The answer is education and improved skills but that requires much more investment in education. And based on who Pres. Trump just named as his Secretary of Education, the befuddled Betty DeVos, there is a serious question whether that will happen or not. Pres. Trump can rant all he wants about China and Mexico but that won’t stop American jobs from disappearing. And unless he faces the real issue, it’s only going to get worse.