The new president has made it clear that he wants jobs to come back to America, and throughout the campaign, the focus was on manufacturing jobs. But what exactly are these manufacturing jobs Donald Trump is talking about?
Mostly he’s talking about the thousands of jobs that Americans used to do before they were shipped over to China in a great wave of globalization that started back in the 1980s. Back then it paid companies to set up shop overseas because of how much cheaper unskilled labor was in the far East. Over the years, however, wages in countries like China rose, making providing companies with less and less incentive to make the switch.
By 2017, wages in China had risen so far that many companies that once left the US are destined to return so that they can get closer to their target market. The problem is that they won’t be bringing all that many jobs with them. Here’s why.
Routine Tasks Have Been Automated
Many of the jobs that Trump wants to see return to the US are the jobs that were done in the rust belt states like Michigan and Ohio before the industry moved abroad. The problem is that in the intervening period, almost all of these routine, unskilled jobs have been automated away.
To get a sense of what is happening in manufacturing, it’s a good idea to look at the global market and not the market in any particular country. According to global figures, the number of people employed in manufacturing is declining year after year, despite the rise in employment in China, and yet global manufacturing output is still going up.
The only thing that explains this is that technology is getting more productive, machines are replacing people, and more work is being done overall.
That’s not to say, of course, that there is no role for people. They’ll still be needed for the stuff that machines can’t do, like replacing hydraulic adapters and repairing broken down machinery. But we won’t see line after line of workers like we did in the past, doing things that can be done much more accurately and cheaply by machine.
Non-Routine Tasks Will Be Automated Soon
Some people have made the case that machines have just about reached their limit and that there are few new tasks that they could be programmed to do. For blue collar workers, this is a good thing, since it would imply that manufacturing is unlikely to shed more jobs in the future. What’s more, companies like Apple and Foxconn say that they plan to return to the US, potentially bringing jobs with them.
But recent evidence suggests that machines will continue to become more capable.
Machines are now being trained that can operate in real-world environments and act like people. In the past, it was almost inconceivable that a robot could identify an object, pick it up and then put it in the right box, but machine learning has changed all that. Trump needs to recognize that these jobs aren’t coming back, and it’s all thanks to tech.
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