Repatriating Manufacturing Jobs

We in the US are in the middle of an election season. Those running for office are all complaining about trade agreements and swearing they will bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. Nobody gets very specific, of course, because nobody knows how it could be done.

The US still has the largest manufacturing capability in the world, but we are only a small bit ahead of China and will surly slip behind China in the near future. In a sense, it makes no difference, since automation has reached the point were it is going to rapidly gobbling up any manufacturing jobs that lie outside the corporate offices.

Consider this statistic: Since 2010, manufacturing output in the US has increased by 20%. During that same period, manufacturing jobs have increased by just a little over 5%.   Or, if you want a more telling statistic, consider that some companies have brought operations back to the US. When they do, however, they inevitably invest heavily in automation and only hire a small fraction of the workers they employed when they were last located in the US.

Manufacturing jobs will continue to disappear, whether located in China or the US. Machines will take over manufacturing.

What should scare working people even more is the fact that automation is increasingly moving into the retail/service space where most jobs now are located. Think of how many people used to be employed in bookstores, selling books. Over 40% of the books bought these days are acquired from Amazon and its competitors.

The good news is the products are going to be produced more efficiently and sold for lower prices. The bad news is that labor is going to be replaced. I’m a process person and have often been involved in planning for automation. I’m, personally, as concerned as anyone else about the social problems being created. I am sure, however, that the solution does not lie with the business process model, or with automation, as such. It’s a social problem and will ultimately need to be solved by rearranging our social structures. Meanwhile, claims that politicians can stop the loss of jobs are simply untrue.


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