High Productivity and the Re-engineering of the Workforce

Maybe you’ve read the news about the soaring productivity in North America’s manufacturing sector this year. It’s a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak economy. Journalists and bloggers declared the greater output was a sign of a thriving and vital industry, not an industry in decline.

And in a sense it’s true. The economic activities in the manufacturing sector have been growing month upon month, for several years now. This is in part due to the focus on future-based clean-energy technologies like lithium-ion batteries that will power the new breed of  electric cars like the Chevy Volt and  Nissan Leaf.

However, the United States has shed about five million manufacturing jobs in the past decade and unemployment has been stuck at 9 percent. A Gallup poll released recently revealed employee job concerns are at a record high.

We’ll mention three reasons for the high productivity, high unemployment conundrum. Two are obvious, but the third reason, not so much.

The first reason would be automation. Repetitive work that assembly line workers have been doing is being replaced by robots that can do it faster and better. The “robopacalypse” has been unfolding for years now, first inconspicuously, but now any assembly line worker still with his or her job is looking over their shoulder – wondering when they will become obsolete and decommissioned.

The second reason for the stubbornly high unemployment is due to off-shoring. The cost differential to manufacture a product in China versus North America was so pronounced, it was irrational not to outsource.

The third, less evident reason why so many people who have been phased out are not back and participating the manufacturing surge is a mismatch of skills.  According to an article in Metal Miner, US manufacturers are indeed hiring but they can’t find qualified people to fill those positions.

In the new robopacalypse, a human’s role will be as one of the many contractors building the machines,  or designers, engineers and scientists. Repetitive, low-skill jobs are the past.

What unemployed people need is re-education in the new disciplines of the industry. A better trained workforce can lower the high unemployment and raise North America’s competitiveness in the global market.

Upgrading isn’t just for robots anymore.


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