Best columns: Business
Issue of the week: U.S. automakers tango with Trump
Car companies are desperate to get on the good side of the president-elect, said Bernie Woodall and David Shepardson in Reuters.com. For months, Donald Trump has threatened to slap big tariffs on cars built in Mexico and has scolded U.S. automakers— sometimes inaccurately—for not building more cars domestically. All that criticism appears to be sinking in. Fiat Chrysler said this week that it will invest $1 billion in two Midwestern plants and create 2,000 U.S. jobs; Ford announced last week that it would scrap plans to build a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico and instead invest $700 million to upgrade one of its Michigan plants, hiring 700 workers in the process. Although “both companies have said they made the decision for business reasons and not because of pressure from Trump,” there’s no denying that automakers are feeling the heat. Talk of Trump’s arm-twisting is dominating this week’s Detroit Auto Show, said Bill Vlasic and Neal Boudette in The New York Times. With a few admonishing tweets, the president- elect “has changed the focus of the show from what new vehicles are on display to where they are made.”
Automakers certainly aren’t relishing the attention, said Jamie Butters and David Welch in Bloomberg.com. Building more cars in Mexico has been a key strategy in recent years, especially when it comes to small cars made for overseas customers. Beyond that, automakers crave predictability “in an industry where billiondollar factories take years to build and some products hardly change over a half decade.” Forecasting “fickle consumer tastes” is difficult in the best of times; the floor at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, for instance, is filled with fuelefficient passenger cars and sleek electric coupes, even though American drivers are once again flocking to gas-guzzling SUVs. Automakers committed to the environmentally friendly models five years ago when gas was $3.60 a gallon. Now it’s beginning to dawn on executives that “divining the future will only get tougher under President Donald Trump.”
“The political dance going on between Donald Trump and Detroit actually has a lot of upside for Detroit,” said Holman W. Jenkins Jr. in The Wall Street Journal. Automakers desperately want relief from the Obama administration’s “ onerous” fuel-efficiency mandates, which companies are trying to meet with as little expense as possible. Trump’s transition team, meanwhile, is sending “strong signals” that automakers will see regulatory burdens relaxed, provided Detroit goes along with the president-elect’s jobs agenda. This game of quid pro quo “is a lot more conventional than it appears.” What’s striking is the “ paltry” number of jobs actually involved in these moves, said Nicholas Clairmont in TheAtlantic.com. Trump has already taken credit on Twitter for Ford’s and Chrysler’s recent announcements; never mind that those decisions were probably underway well before he was even elected. But ultimately we’re talking about roughly 3,000 new jobs so far, about the same number the U.S. economy added “in one-third of one average day of August 2016, a strongish month for the recovery.” More worrisome? That American companies feel they have to “curry favor with the president-elect” at all in order to conduct business.
Why men resist ‘pinkcollar’ jobs
Claire Cain Miller
The New York Times
Many men would rather stay unemployed than accept a job doing “women’s work,” said Claire Cain Miller. Blue-collar jobs predominantly held by men, like machine operator, are rapidly being lost to automation, while so-called pink-collar jobs dominated by women, such as home health aide or nurse practitioner, are among the fastest growing. But even though more than a fifth of American men are jobless, “they aren’t running to these new service-sector jobs.” That may be because such jobs require very different skill sets and pay less, though research shows they offer more job security and wage growth than most blue-collar work. But the likelier source of resistance is that these roles are seen as overtly feminine, involving empathy and caring more than macho manual labor. In short, “our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market.” Some hospitals are trying to get past this cultural lag by presenting caregiving roles as “manly,” comparing the adrenaline rush of working as an ER nurse to mountain climbing. Tech-heavy health-care jobs could be another answer; ultrasound technicians, for instance, don’t need a college degree but make 22 percent more than other blue-collar workers. The key is to get the ball rolling. “If more men do pink-collar jobs, they could erase the stigma and turn them into men’s jobs.”
Twilight for department stores
“Department stores are in a death spiral,” said Brad Tuttle. On the whole, American retailers enjoyed a strong holiday shopping season, but it “appears to have been fairly awful” for department stores, which used to dominate the sales tallies. Macy’s announced last week that it will lay off some 10,000 employees this year and shutter 100 stores; Sears said it will close 78 Kmart stores and 26 flagship retail locations this spring. Meanwhile, stock prices for department stores “have cratered.” None of this should come as a surprise. There’s no “magical formula that traditional retailers can use to reverse trends that have been years in the making.”
Americans spent a record $91.7 billion online during the holidays, up 11 percent over 2015. It used to be that department stores could rely on last-minute holiday shoppers to boost their business, but online retailers have taken away even that advantage by vastly improving the speed and reliability of holiday deliveries. The shoppers who do head to brickand- mortar stores now favor discount chains like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, or fast-fashion apparel stores like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara. The retail landscape has utterly changed over the past decade. And based on how they fared during 2016, department stores still have no idea how to adapt.