Did you lose your job during the Great Recession? Is it likely you’re going to be laid off — maybe several times, between now and whenever retirement age arrives, if you’re fortunate enough to partake in it?
And when the layoff notice arrives, whom do you blame?
These aren’t academic questions, although they’re getting a lot of academic attention and study. For those who, however much we enjoy our occupations, work because we have to — and that’s most of us — job loss is a cataclysmic event, financially and psychologically, not only for the individual but also for families and communities.
Yes, that’s a bit heavy today, but it’s worth looking at because it matters, at the macro and micro levels. At the micro level, it figures into decisions about where to live and what careers to study for.
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At the macro level, it played into last year’s election and this year’s policy fights. It figures into economic-development discussions at every level — which growing industries (or at least those not contracting) should a region or state pursue? Are such industries out there? What threats loom for the existing economic base? What should we spend our education budget on?
That’s where we get to the blame part.
For some industries, layoffs simply come with the territory, not that it makes them any more pleasant to endure. Layoffs are a built-in feature of highly cyclical sectors such as construction, oil and gas, even aerospace. Everyone wants a new office or condo tower in Seattle, more wells drilled, more planes, until they don’t, and then the layoffs come by the hundreds if not thousands. When that happens, some drift to new occupations, while others ride out the bust in hopes there’s another boom behind it.
In some sectors, layoffs are permanent. The mill, the mine or the store is closed because the company failed or technology or competition overtook it. As discussed in this space earlier this year, bricks-and-mortar retailing is a prime example. By the way, we’ve got one more to add to that list of casualties: apparel retailer Wet Seal, which had several stores in Western Washington malls.
Then there are those industries that we’re not sure about the long-term trend line, let alone what’s driving it in that direction.
Manufacturing, which everyone professes to love these days, is a long-term sunset industry, according to one camp of thought. Even if there are a few holdout companies making things domestically, they’ll be doing so in factories populated by robots, not workers. To the extent there is a growth segment in manufacturing, it’s “mechatronics,” a term for the installation, maintenance and repair of robots and drones, a field for which community and technical colleges, including Clover Park, are setting up training programs.
Multiple studies support that view, including one from the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. “Overwhelmingly, the largest impact (on manufacturing employment) is productivity,” a 2015 report said. “Almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories.”
Recently, though, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation issued a study charging that “trade pressure and faltering U.S. competitiveness were responsible for more than two-thirds of the 5.7 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010. And rather than entering a ‘fourth industrial revolution,’ U.S. manufacturing productivity growth now is actually near an all-time low.”
The proposed solution: “U.S. policymakers should aim to close the country’s trade deficit in manufactured goods by fighting foreign mercantilism and pursuing a national competitiveness agenda that hinges in part on boosting manufacturing productivity rates. The report finds that successfully closing the manufacturing goods trade deficit this way would create 1.3 million jobs.”
Hence you have the underpinnings of the administration’s trade fights, not to mention the debate between academics disputing one another’s conclusions.
This isn’t just an issue for manufacturing. Pick an industry or occupation and apply the same questions to it. Is this a job that automation, in the form of robotics or artificial-intelligence-equipped computers, will be doing tomorrow? Or by someone in a low-labor-cost country? Is that already happening? By that measure even the tech sector, the golden child of employment prospects, is vulnerable.
When it does happen, what will replace those jobs and employ the displaced workers? Better think quickly, because neither competition nor productivity gains will cease. We can’t all go back to becoming farmers. A driverless GPS-guided tractor already has that job.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.