June 26, 2017, from Da Lat, Vietnam
“To be honest, I steered my children as far away from manufacturing as I could.” This from Jeff Niebauer, age 60, who spent his career in manufacturing at about $30 per hour, reported by Heather Long of CNN.
I never worked in a factory as an adult. I managed to get a college education and get a good “white collar” job on graduation. However, as a teenager in High Point, North Carolina, I did all manner of menial work–mowing lawns, painting schools, filling stations, grocery stores, tobacco fields, and also in a textile factory. Using a Trumpism, “I will tell you, believe me..,” I quickly determined I had to do everything in my power to avoid the kind of factory life my parents had manufacturing stockings and socks at Adams Millis.
Does anyone have trouble understanding this? It’s the hard repetitive work, the low pay, and the limits on ability to use your mind. For parents in our early 20th century agricultural economy, the route upward for their kids was the factory, but now it must be from the factory to the services and knowledge economy.
Niebauer worked for GE on industrial engines at $30 per hour, work far better than my parents and I had, and pay at twice today’s proposed federal minimum wage. Yet, he doesn’t want his children to do this kind of work.
If parents understand that manufacturing is not the opportunity of the future, why doesn’t our new President understand that? How can he satisfy the distress which garnered him the votes, by proposing to reverse our course in jobs advancement, trying to “bring back” manufacturing? The ironic good news is that bringing manufacturing back is impossible. Manufacturing is pressed on one side by low wage countries and on the other side by automation. Trump’s touted Carrier deal has already evaporated, as Carrier announces 600 layoffs.
There is a clear avenue of opportunity. We are among the few leading developed countries with a burgeoning service sector, required to meet our growing needs, some of which is highly exportable. Furthermore, the US is at the leading edge in technological development, and has a clear opportunity to grow in the knowledge economy. However, our administration has yet to offer even a recognition of this opportunity, much less a plan to prepare us to realize it.
What would it take for us to realize the opportunity in services, technology, and the knowledge economy? I argue it would take three things: (1) a commitment to shared prosperity, which goes beyond redistribution to a commitment to “good jobs” for everyone; (2) a new approach to good education for all, in which everyone has a reasonable chance for developing new trade skills, technological skills, or other skills, each in accordance with her/his abilities and aspirations; and, (3) our government helping by investing in fundamental research and infrastructure, as well as capital to promote new business development.
I acknowledge this is a tall order. It would require revolutionary thinking not consistent with government policies of the last 30 years, and perhaps especially resisted by this government. Some will say it is utopian. It is lacking the abundance of details which would seem to be required to even start down this path. Here I must acknowledge Roberto Unger, my professor at Harvard this semester, who urges such an approach. Unger is often challenged by students who want a “roadmap” to this ideal society. Unger repeatedly advises the specifics can only be determined by experiment in communities, small and large. Certainly some experiments with institutions involving citizens, business, and government will fail, but we will learn and correct our mistakes. If the objectives cited above are kept in mind, a zig-zag path of advancement can lead to such a society.
The only reason voters rallied to the empty promise of restoring manufacturing jobs is that we have not laid out the path to the only real opportunity ahead. So, even if our new President was able to restore our manufacturing economy (which no one can do), it would not satisfy the needs of unhappy American factory working parents.
Manufacturing parents, you need to demand better answers for your kids.