You've probably heard a lot about how automation is a job killer. But the robots aren't actually to blame.
Critics of a manufacturing strategy argue that such a policy is a fool’s errand because robots will wipe out middle class industrial jobs. Their arguments are being amplified now with Donald Trump’s praise for factory work.
But whatever the rationale, dismissing the future of work in factories is a mistake.
Automation can clearly reduce employment at a factory. I recently visited a steel mill in Cleveland where 36 workers managed an entire line. Two decades ago it would have been a far more crowded floor. And a highly cited study shows that automation did replace approximately 670,000 jobs in the United States between 1990 and 2007.
Imports from China, meanwhile, have cost us exponentially more work: 2.6 million jobs between 2001 and 2007 alone.
Couple that with the Great Recession of 2008 that hamstrung U.S. economic activity for years, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a long period of paltry manufacturing employment growth. Manufacturing is one of the very few industries that has yet to make a full jobs recovery, adding back a little more than 1 million of the 2.3 million jobs lost during the recession.
Still, it’s easy to gaze ahead at the future and assume automation will reduce employment in manufacturing even further.
Yes, automation has certainly changed what it means to manufacture in America. The number of industrial robots in U.S. factories has increased. Worker productivity, while an imperfectly measured metric, has grown as well.
But that’s always the nature of this business. There’s a reason the modern factory doesn’t look like Henry Ford’s assembly lines anymore; It’s because the manufacturing sector is always improving itself, producing more, at a more consistent level of quality. The manufacturing sector accounts for 70 percent of private-sector spending on research and development, and 90 percent of all new patents filed. Robots are part and parcel of this constant evolution.
What’s added manufacturing jobs up until recent economic times is growing demand, growing market share, and new made-in-America product development. We’ve suffered setbacks in all three of these areas over the past few decades.
That brings us back to the original question of a national manufacturing strategy, and how public policy can help.
American-made infrastructure investment grows demand.
One way is by increasing demand, like including tough Buy America preferences in government procurement contracts. For instance: When President Trump and Congress (finally) put forward what is hopefully a sizeable infrastructure investment plan, the materials for it should be entirely Made in the USA.
More balanced trade grows our market share.
We shouldn’t be losing jobs because other nations don’t follow global trade rules, yet that’s where we find ourselves today. So we should strengthen our enforcement tools against foreign companies that skirt our trade laws, and use our leverage as the wealthiest (and most open) market in the world to access new markets overseas.
A world-class manufacturing sector requires a skilled workforce to match it.
Last but not least, we should be investing in our workers. Manufacturing jobs in the future won’t resemble those that have gone offshore. Work-based learning and investing in middle class job training is a good way to prepare. We know some nation will be manufacturing the machines and robots that we will find on tomorrow’s factory floor. With our own large market, knowhow, and access to affordable energy, it should be us.
Some of the factories of the future will still have thousands of workers alongside robots. And they will be making iPhones, autonomous vehicles, and gadgets we haven’t even imagined yet. The real question is not who will be making stuff—robots or workers—but where that stuff will be made. Fostering an innovation ecosystem and reforming our tax code to encourage new product development that is ultimately made in America gives our own workers an opportunity to compete.
None of this, of course, will fully replace the jobs lost in the past, and promises that we’ll “bring back” jobs have nostalgic appeal but little basis in reality.
Still, that doesn’t mean we should concede defeat and move on. Throwing in the towel has never been the American way. We’re going to need smart, talented people to help invent and make the things of tomorrow, even with more robots on the factory floor.
Scott Paul is the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a unique nonprofit partnership established in 2007 by some of America’s leading manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottPaulAAM.