As the loss of manufacturers and manufacturing jobs continues during the current recession, the debate continues about whether we should even care. The U.S. is now indisputably a service-based economy. And supporters argue that the erosion of manufacturing in the U.S. is not a bad thing. I was particularly taken aback by Robert Reich’s recent blog post, “The Future of Manufacturing, GM, and American Workers”. We can get manufactured goods from all over the world, he asserts. So long as we keep our sources diversified and don’t depend too much on any particular suppliers, we should be OK. The most important type of work is what he calls symbolic analyst work. Only manufacturing engineers really need to know about manufacturing. As for the rest, he says, “Whatever they need to learn about manufacturing can usually be discovered online.” Not surprising, coming from a member of the ivory tower brain trust. And really, where did he tour a factory run by 400 robots and 2 workers? And, then think it will be the norm in the future? A former Secretary of Labor (whom I highly respect, by the way) is saying this?
What I disagree strongly with is that outsourcing any or all manufacturing to entities in other countries does not create problems. Also, the assumption that all ideas in manufacturing come from the symbolic analysts is definitely false. Often some of the most creative ideas come from those who actually do the work on the factory floor. How do you tap into those people when they work for foreign entities? And what about new technology? It comes from doing, not just reading about manufacturing on the Internet. Who is going to design and build those factories run by robots? People browsing the Internet?
When you lose technology, you can lose an industry. When you lose the suppliers of technology in the US, you may lose opportunities to reinvent and revitalize industries or lose those industries completely. For example, what happened to the Swiss watch industry? The Swiss did not invent the new electronic technology, let it pass them by, and suddenly their dominance of an industry synonymous with their country disappeared. Putting IP (intellectual property) in the hands of foreign suppliers risks IP infringement and theft, even with supposed protections in place. As the U.S. becomes more dependent on overseas suppliers for manufacturing, jobs are not the only loss. Lost innovation may never be recaptured and harnessed to improve our society and our standard of living. Loss of whole industries are not being made up by an equal increase in knowledge workers making the same decent wages.
Is there another factor at play with assertions that preserving a strong manufacturing base is not important? I believe that there are class prejudices at work here – a strong “don’t get your hands dirty” group that thinks manufacturing is for blue collar types, the uneducated and lower class and is best performed by low-paid workers in other countries.
What does this say about the future of the American worker? If the demise of U.S. manufacturing continues, instead of supervising factories run by robots, will we be the ones making the little paper umbrellas to put in the drinks of workers in other countries?