Saving Jobs That Don’t Exist

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Our new President has promised to increase the number of manufacturing jobs in America pointing out that we’ve lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. Laying the blame for these losses on foreign outsourcing appeases those whose jobs were outsourced, but it seems to me there may be a larger issue here, one that extremely few politicians want to talk about; of the 5 million jobs lost, just slightly more than 500,000 of them were lost to our trading partners. Just over 10%. Robots killed the rest.

President Trump has chosen his enemy wisely, zeroing in on the same countries much of his voter base perceives as the thieves who stole our jobs. Better to threaten trade wars and embargoes on countries that compete for our factories, knowing that he neither has nor wants tools to stop the push for industrial automation. His prediction that his policies will produce 25 million new jobs in ten years is generally regarded as worth a try, but not much else. Declaring that, “Companies are not going to leave the United States any more without consequences,” struck the right cord with displaced factory workers, but there’s no trade law to resurrect jobs eliminated for all time by robots. The automation tsunami that has targeted our factory manufacturing is poised to displace millions more in other industries.

Even as Amazon crows about creating 100,000 jobs, MarketWatch points out that not only will it displace some multiple of that number at competing retailers, (in fact Macy’s and Sears closed a combined 250 stores after Christmas; the Limited closed all of theirs) Amazon is one of the nimblest adapters of automation from its 30,000 product picking warehouse robots to “smart” drones that can independently load a product and fly it to the Amazon customer with no human intervention. The Marketwatch article is titled “Amazon Is Going to Kill More American Jobs than China Did,” and I wonder if our government understands that a.) this is happening sooner rather than later and b.) there’s no legislation or declaration that can reverse the tide of robots about to be unleashed.

While companies that manufacture agricultural equipment point out that equipment guided by GPS makes motorized field work more efficient and productive, the leap to eliminating the farmer from the driver’s seat is all but certain in in the near future. Automation may even hold the key to eliminating work for the migrants that come to harvest our crops each year as a Spanish company has introduced a machine that can identify and pick ripe strawberries 24 hours a day with token human interaction.

As I locked the doors to Baker Johnson, Inc. for the last time in 2005, print companies in America were closing at the rate of 1,000 per month yet there few calls for protective trade laws even though much of the high-end book printing had migrated to Hong-Kong, India and China. That wasn’t bankrupting 1,000 printers each month.

In 2005 the printing trade magazines were already discussing the benefits of “lights out” book manufacturing (manufacturing with no human intervention) since the publisher’s input was now available digitally. The only debate wasn’t whether this was possible but which file system would lend itself most readily for such workflows. “Lights out manufacturing” proved to be a disagreeable term to many so now the goal is more simply called “automation”. And it continues to be the goal a decade and counting later with the magazine Printing Impressions recently offering printers some guidelines to facilitate their automaton automation.

I’m quite content to be on the sidelines of this revolution. From my first day in the industry I was inspired by the many craftspeople I worked with. Learning to understand the complexities of their jobs became a walk down a hallway where myriad doors opened to myriad other doors. No wonder the newest Lithographer’s Manual (9th ed.)I own ran 426 double column 8 ½ x 11 pages. The chapter on Basic Camera Operation alone ran 46 pages and if it had been titled The Bookmaker’s Manual, the section on Binding and Finishing might have run 60 pages instead of its brief twelve. Lithographic reproduction remains a craft and an art.

Strangely enough, a couple of weeks before we would have had to scrap our unsold equipment, an Asian-American equipment broker bought 70% of our unsold machinery that eventually filled three shipping containers, each destined for China.

One of the issues troubling British corporations is that they will no longer enjoy free trade in Europe after its much anticipated exit from the Euro-Zone. Unlike President Trump’s trade policies, pro-Brexit officials believe that free trade is central to the English economy and hope that not only will a work-around enable the continuation of free trade with all Europe, the option to negotiate free trade agreements under the World Trade Organization auspices is possible, although establishing 163 individual trade treaties (one with each WTO member country) may not be the slam dunk optimistic Brexiters are anticipating.

Tariffs, embargoes and trade wars may be our President’s arsenal to combat declining manufacturing employment, but trade wars are seldom more than band-aids used to allow one section of an economy to become competitive in the world’s markets while enjoying protection in its home market Even conservative American economists are leery of punitive trade policies, not only because they invite tit-for-tat retaliation and generally cost consumers more in the long run but also tilt the commercial playing field by deciding winners and losers.

The President has seemed to trust his instincts over the advice of experts. Applying the moniker “fake news” to opinions that are not in line with his “alternate facts” may well be his undoing. Most believe his pledge to create 25 million jobs may be noble but will prove to be unachievable.

His commitment to protecting American workers may be genuine, but passing out red Trump hats at his inauguration that were made in Vietnam and China tells us that the spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak.

Ultimately he’ll understand it’s not possible to save a job that no longer exists.

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About Wayne Johnson 68 Articles
I've worked in book manufacturing for over 30 years, closing my company Baker Johnson, Inc. in 2005. Currently I work freelance with a large group of publishers, advising them on the printing options available to them as the book industry endures major restructuring. My wife Cathy is a retired psychologist and spent most of her career working with the youth at Maxey Boys Training School. She is a small mammal rehabilitator with Friends of Wildlife. Our daughter Whitney is a PharmD working in the Denver area evaluating the pharmaceutical requirements of nursing homes. Our son Eliot lives in Waterloo and is an editor at Mathematical Reviews in Ann Arbor.

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