Manufacturing Jobs, Robots, and the Economy

We still make lots of stuff in the United States. China is our closest competitor. The two countries are very close at the number 1 and number 2 positions of manufacturing output.  In the past decade, manufacturing output in the US has risen by a third. What hasn’t risen is the number of jobs in manufacturing. In the last ten years, those have decreased by a third. About 6 million jobs disappeared.

Adam Davidson of NPR traveled to South Carolina to get a better picture of what has happened. In Greenville, he found shuttered textile plants but found lots of hi-tech factories.

The double shock we’re experiencing now—globalization and computer-aided industrial productivity—happens to have the opposite impact: income inequality is growing, as the rewards for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish.

Its going to get worse for unskilled workers. A factory owner puts it bluntly. He is willing to invest in a machine that will earn back its cost in two years. If a robot can do your job, hope that it costs at least twice your salary.

This all leads back to thinking about the Great Recession that come from the 2008 financial crisis and comparing it to the Great Depression. One theory is that the Great Depression stemmed from the movement from agricultural jobs to manufacturing jobs. It’s starting to look like the Great Recession stemmed from the movement away from manufacturing jobs. We were using residential real estate as a piggy bank to help through the transition, but we eventually broke the piggy bank.

The latest numbers from the end of 2011 show some solid signs of job growth and consumer borrowing is on the rise. it seems clear from Davidson’s story that some of the jobs will never come back. It’s more important than ever to invest in education and training.


Image of a closed factory is by Rubbertoe