Robots: A Threat to American Workers?

With smartphones, smart cars and smart everything else, convenience is everywhere -- but will they cost us our jobs?

by Bob Davis, The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.) / December 12, 2016
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- The same advances in technology that allow these words to be written practically anywhere and read practically anywhere are part of a larger movement that puts serious pressure on the nation’s economy, particularly when it comes to factory jobs.

Who can’t make the most of a wired world where so much information is available in the palm of your hand? With fake news running rampant, we better not answer that. But the point is made. With smartphones, smart cars and smart everything else, convenience is everywhere.

There’s a downside, however.

Some examples:

The number of Americans employed in the production of steel and other metals dropped by 42 percent in 20 years. Over the same time, production in this area rose by 38 percent, according to a recent Associated Press article.

Since 1979, the United States has lost 7 million manufacturing jobs, while production from U.S. plants continues to rapidly grow.

“Manufacturing employment is now back to 1941 levels and falling,” James Smith, chief economist of Parsec Financial, recently told The Wall Street Journal. “This is a global trend and not at all specific to the U.S. It is caused by labor productivity growth.”

Indeed, most of the decline in U.S. factory jobs, according to a Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research analysis in 2015, is because of automation and other advances that require fewer people to make things. Only 13 percent of the loss of these jobs was due to foreign trade, according to the study.

We’ve met the enemy and it’s an army of robots doing work formerly done by blue-collar American workers.

And what of those hundreds of jobs at a Carrier manufacturing plant in Indiana that President-elect Donald Trump said he was saving? The bad news is the robots are coming for them, as well.

Greg Hayes, CEO of Carrier’s corporate parent United Technologies, spilled the beans on CNBC last week. “We’re going to … automate to drive the cost down so that we can continue to be competitive,” he said. The bottom line, per Hayes, will be “fewer jobs.”

Of course, there’s not a neat and tidy explanation. Global trade pacts, corporate mindsets and a federal government that was unwilling to invest more deeply in national infrastructure and worker training surely played a role. A 2012 academic study by three Harvard Business School professors, “Competitiveness at the Crossroads,” offered bad news for Americans.

“The basic narrative begins in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Through globalization, it became possible and attractive for firms to do business in, to, and from far more countries,” the report noted. “Changes in corporate governance and compensation caused U.S. managers to adopt an approach to management that focused attention on the stock price and short-term performance.”

The nation didn’t take the steps required to stay competitive with the world, according to the report. Instead, it took the same short-term outlook preferred by American companies that began offshoring jobs. “Government itself made unsustainable promises to the middle class, pledging to cover more healthcare expenses of future retirees, to employ more individuals in government jobs, and to pay generous pensions to many in the public sector, while reducing effective tax rates across the board between 1980 and 2010.”

In the recently ended presidential election, the nation had an opportunity to think long and hard about how we confront this ongoing wave of job losses to automation. We could have demanded the candidates and the reporters covering them focus on substance well beyond blanket assurances that are built on wishful thinking.

Too bad we didn’t.

©2016 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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