The future of manufacturing: Workforce education

In the future economy, prosperity will go to the country with the best-trained workers. Let's make that us.


Robert Reich
June 1, 2009 10:30PM (UTC)

Symbolic analysts have been hit by the current downturn, just as everyone else has. But over the long term, symbolic analysts will do just fine -- as long as they stay away from job functions that are becoming routinized. They will continue to benefit from economic change. Computer technology gives them more tools for thinking, creating and communicating. The global market gives them more potential customers for their insights.

To be sure, symbolic analysts are popping up all over the world. More than half of all Fortune 500 companies say they're outsourcing some software development or expanding their own development centers outside the U.S. But apart from recessions, demand for symbolic analysts in the U.S. will continue to grow faster than the supply. Innovation creates that demand, and demand for it, in turn, generates more innovation.

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It's simply wrong to assume a zero-sum game among nations. There is no finite amount of symbolic-analytic work to be parceled out around the globe. There is no limit to the capacity of the human brain to discover new problems needing to be solved, or to create better solutions to old problems. And no limit to the number of problems needing solutions.

In decades to come, nations with the highest percentages of their working populations able to do symbolic-analytic tasks will have the highest standard of living and be the most competitive internationally.

America’s biggest challenge is to educate more of our people sufficiently to excel at such tasks. We do remarkably well with the children from relatively affluent families. Our universities are the envy of the world. and no other nation surpasses us in providing intellectual and creative experience within entire regions specializing in one or another kind of symbolic analytic work (Los Angeles for music and film, Silicon Valley for software and the Internet, greater Boston for biomed engineering, and so on).

But we’re in danger of losing ground because too many of our kids, especially those from lower-middle-class and poor families, can’t get the foundational education they need. The consequence is a yawning gap in income and wealth that continues to widen. More and more of our working people finds themselves in the local service economy -- in hotels, hospitals, restaurant chains and big-box retailers -- earning low wages with little or no benefits. Unions could help raise their wages by giving them more bargaining leverage. A higher minimum wage and larger earned income tax credit could help as well.

Not all of our young people can or should receive a four-year college degree, but we can do far better for them than we're doing now. At the least, every young person should have access to a year or two beyond high school, in order to gain a certificate attesting to their expertise in a particular area of technical competence. Technicians who install, upgrade and service automated and computerized machinery -- office technicians, auto technicians, computer technicians, environmental technicians -- will be in ever-greater demand.

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Some argue that even if I’m correct about all this, the erosion of traditional manufacturing impedes the capacity of Americans to learn important symbolic-analytic tasks, because such learning depends on an intimate understanding of the manufacturing process. This may be true for a few of these tasks: Manufacturing engineers surely need to know manufacturing inside out and some design engineers need that knowledge as well. But most symbolic analysts do not. Whatever they need to learn about manufacturing can usually be discovered online.

Others argue we need more manufacturing in the U.S. because our national security depends on it. That seems doubtful. U.S. military contractors subcontract all over the world. As long as they diversify their sources so as not to be dependent on one location or country, we’re safe. In the unlikely event that much of the rest of the world where manufacturing is now done suddenly turns on us, we can create the factories and equipment we need. We’ve mobilized for war before, quite successfully.

Still others say that eventually the dollar will drop so low that global firms will find it profitable to locate traditional manufacturing assembly in the United States. Don't hold your breath. But if and when that should happen, Americans will be far poorer than even low-wage workers are today, because everything we purchase from anywhere will be far more costly.

Obviously, the market is fallible, as we’ve recently and painfully experienced. And sometimes we need to consider what’s good for our economy and society as a whole regardless of where the market may lead us. But that’s exactly where I depart from those who believe we need to protect or bring back traditional manufacturing in the United States. To do so would be enormously costly. I just don’t get how those costs can possibly be justified.

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Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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