Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required

Jeffrey J. Selingo – The New York Times:

“In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 or 30 feet,” said Eric Spiegel, who recently retired as president and chief executive of Siemens U.S.A. “People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.”

Ditto at John Deere dealerships, which repair million-dollar farming machinery filled with several dozen computers. Fixing tractors and grain harvesters now requires advanced math and comprehension skills and the ability to solve problems on the fly. “The toolbox is now a computer,” said Andy Winnett, who directs the company’s agricultural program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington.

These are the types of good-paying jobs that President Trump, blaming trade deals for the decline in manufacturing, has promised to bring back to working-class communities. But according to a study by Ball State University, nearly nine in 10 jobs that disappeared since 2000 were lost to automation in the decades-long march to an information-driven economy, not to workers in other countries.

(Emphasis mine.)

This mirrors a conversation we’ve had in our home for over two decades. The well-paying jobs available to people with no more than a high school diploma, once plentiful even as late as the 1970s, are not only fewer in the US every year, but not coming back from foreign manufacturing centers. Even in those foreign centers, work comes in the form of highly repetitious manual labor assembling electronic devices. Those, too, will shortly be replaced by automation.

Erecting trade barriers, making business difficult for companies importing parts and finished goods from outside the US won’t change this. Any new factory built in the US will be filled with robotics, computer networks, and workstations. Those who work on the equipment will require special training, often including programming skills. Those who design and build this equipment will likely hold advanced degrees.

The divide, then, between the “front row kids” and the “back row kids” isn’t likely to narrow without directly addressing its root cause: lack of adequate education and unwillingness or inability to move oneself to where that education and resulting employment are available.

None of this is to denigrate the value of hometowns. Hometowns aren’t only where we come from, they’re also where we wind up and start a family’s next generation. The two need not be in the same place.

#employment #education #trade #protectionism #frontrowkids #backrowkids