How it’s Made
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m fascinated by a program on the Science Channel called “How it’s Made.” Each program includes three or four products and shows their production process from raw materials to finished product.
I now know how breakfast cereal is made, along with numerous other food products. We’ve all probably seen brief scenes showing car assembly on the evening news, but I’ve seen the complete process for both regular passenger cars and exotics that can exceed 200 miles per hour. Have you wondered how those golf balls you regularly hit into the water come to be on your tee? Or how crayons are made? Or circuit boards? Or cricket bats?
It’s fascinating stuff. It’s also instructive, because what you’re actually watching most of the time is the miracle of computer controlled machine tools that are efficiently doing the work that was once done by people. There are still men and women on the automobile assembly line to be sure, but in greatly reduced numbers. So-called robots are now doing most of the welding, stamping and boring. And they don’t belong to unions.
These are the jobs that once went to high school graduates who didn’t go on the college, either because they couldn’t or didn’t want to. Starting after World War II, a willing worker could get a good job at the steel mill, the auto plant, the appliance manufacturer – indeed, any number of companies that were satisfying a pent up demand stifled by depression and war. Now, as some politicians are fond of reminding us, many of these jobs have gone to foreign shores, because enlightened (to me) trade policies have leveled the labor playing field, with the result that the worldwide standard of living has steadily risen.
It is well to remember that the United States is still a manufacturing power. While China, with four times the population, leads the world in total manufacturing value, the per capita value of those goods was $1,856 in a recent year, as compared to the United States’ $6,280. Keep in mind also that, even though the brand names might sometimes be foreign, most of the automobiles sold in this country are made here.
The American worker is also highly productive. Only Switzerland, Luxembourg and Norway have more productive workers, and they are obviously very small economies. What this means, and “How it’s Made” confirms it, is that fewer workers can get the same work done. And these workers are more likely to be people who know how to operate computers and complicated machinery. It isn’t enough, now, to just have a high school diploma.
Despite what politicians tell you to the contrary, the decline in the numbers of high paying manufacturing jobs was and is unavoidable. For many years, we have been in a transition to an information-based economy, where education is king. The most recent figures show an unemployment rate for college graduates of 2.8 percent; for high school graduates it’s 5.4 percent. Average weekly income is $1,137 and $678 respectively.
In January, the number of job openings in this country rose above 5 million for the first time. That strongly suggests that employers are finding it difficult to find qualified applicants for some jobs. Only education tailored to the new realities can reduce that number. Finally, we should recognize that it’s too late for some people. If they’re willing to work at a lower paying job, we should continue the earned-income tax credits and other programs that permit them to maintain a decent standard of living, while giving their children the kind of education they’ll need in an inevitably changing economy.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon