Manufacturing: Trump’s robot dilemma
President Trump has pledged to save American jobs from Mexico and China, but he might want to deal with the robots first, said Peter Kafka in Recode.net. Studies suggest that the vast majority of U.S. factory jobs lost in the past few decades were lost not to overseas workers, but to automation. That trend is only accelerating. Machines could today feasibly replace at least some of what human workers do in 50 percent of all jobs, no matter the sector, according to an eye-popping new report from management consultancy McKinsey. “That’s not just low-paying work but plenty of whitecollar employment as well.” More workplaces than ever, from oil rigs to farms, “are now welcoming robotic laborers,” said Jamie Condliffe in TechnologyReview.com. An oil company that once required 20 employees to work a drilling site “may soon need as few as five,” thanks to robots that have taken over dangerous, repetitive jobs joining heavy pipes as they’re driven into wells. Robot workers are also infiltrating the mining and construction industries. What’s a populist president to do?
Not much, said David Randall in Reuters.com. Some 80 percent of companies planning to cut jobs in the next year expect to replace at least some workers with automation, according to a recent survey by consulting and financial firm PwC. Ironically, Trump’s focus on American-made products could accelerate that trend. Shortly after the president-elect struck a deal with Carrier in November to keep 800 jobs at an Indiana factory, the heatingand- cooling company announced its future investments in the plant would focus on automation, eventually resulting in job losses. Similar decisions across corporate America will ultimately become a problem for a president who has pledged to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.”
It’s counterintuitive, but the answer is to build more robots, said Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. If Trump browbeats manufacturers into staying in the U.S., companies will naturally invest in more robots to avoid paying our high wages. Right now, those robots aren’t being made in America; they’re built in China. Beijing has recently invested billions of dollars in its robotics industry, hoping to keep its manufacturers from fleeing to India, Vietnam, and other developing Asian economies where the labor is even cheaper. Now China is where the world goes to buy industrial robots. The U.S. is behind in this arms race, but it could yet catch up, because it has many advantages China lacks, including a robust startup culture and the fact that many of the world’s most talented roboticists work at American universities. It would be politically difficult, of course, but consider the alternative: “Today, we buy a lot of stuff made in China by Chinese people. Tomorrow, we’ll buy stuff made in America—by Chinese robots.”