Bob Follett: We need answers on jobs
Politicians are talking a lot about how they would create jobs. A lot of the talk is hot air. Little is actually getting accomplished by either Congress or the administration.
As a teenager, I was a gas station attendant. Every gas station had attendants who pumped gas and cleaned windshields. Those jobs are gone. I was briefly part of a four-man garbage collection team. Now garbage collection is usually done by one man and a much more mechanized truck.
How many bank teller jobs have disappeared as the result of ATMs and online banking? My supermarket now has self check-out. Surely this has eliminated many check-out cashier jobs at grocery stores.
When I was young, most ditches and trenches were dug by men with shovels. It took lots of workers for this. Now machines do the digging, and many jobs have gone away permanently.
Auto assembly plants used to employ hundreds of thousands. Now, with automation and robots, autos are assembled by far fewer workers. U.S. Steel’s Gary Works now produces more steel with 8,000 employees than it once did with 27,000 employees.
This reduction in jobs is true of all kinds of manufacturing. Computers, robots and other technologies have greatly reduced the number of workers needed.
As recently as 1970, some 3.5 million were employed in agriculture. That number has declined to about 800,000. Machinery has allowed farm production to expand while jobs have gone away.
How many jobs at record stores no longer exist because of the iPod and other devices? Borders employed more than 20,000. Those jobs are gone, as are many jobs in other bookstores, impacted by e-books.
The Postal Service wants to lay off 220,000 workers. The Internet has changed their business.
And of course, this newspaper, like so many others, has reduced its workforce.
In almost every area of economic activity, technology has greatly reduced the number of jobs. And then there are the jobs that have gone overseas. Many factory jobs have gone to China, Vietnam, Mexico and other countries with low-cost labor. The Internet allows X-rays to be sent to India for reading by doctors there. Routine legal work is now sent by the Internet to India.
A wide range of new technologies has resulted in the loss of jobs. And technologies continue to develop and improve. The jobs continue to disappear.
For many years, after World War II, there were lots of jobs building interstate highways, airports, schools and many other large-scale public projects. It seems we can’t afford such projects any more.
For a time, “funny money” mortgages fueled a home construction boom that employed large numbers of people. We all know how that ended. Construction workers in large numbers are unemployed. Will there ever be another housing boom to put them back to work?
Of course, there are a few areas where jobs have been created. The Transportation Security Agency employs thousands in jobs that didn’t exist before 9/11. Medical care for an aging population is a growing area for jobs. There are other areas in which jobs have been created in the past several years. But the number of such jobs is relatively small compared with the jobs that have been eliminated by technological developments.
What should our nation, our society, do for all of the people who have been and will be displaced by technology and who may never find good-paying jobs again?
With the huge national debt, just handing out money to those who are the long-term unemployed is not a viable option.
Those with good-paying jobs consume more goods and services. More consumption leads to more jobs to produce the goods and services. Good-paying jobs also mean more tax revenues for governments at all levels. Is there a substitute for the good-paying jobs that have disappeared?
It used to be said that giving workers teaspoons instead of steam shovels to move the earth for roads and dams and other projects would solve unemployment. But no one explained where the money would come from to pay those workers with teaspoons.
Private businesses will continue to seek labor-saving technologies – technologies that eliminate jobs and increase profits. Governments at all levels are continuing to cut back, no longer able to afford large staffs. So where will the jobs come from to provide for the growing population of our country as well as the currently unemployed?
Some countries have tried earlier retirement or shorter working hours, assuming more workers would be needed to do the same amount of work. These measures have not worked. Perhaps there are other policies that would produce greater benefits.
I don’t have answers. But I know that our political leaders, Republicans and Democrats, need to tell us their ideas for addressing this long-term issue.
Temporarily cutting taxes or temporarily funding infrastructure projects is unlikely to create any significant number of permanent jobs. The proposals coming from the politicians do not seem to offer a realistic solution to the long-term problem of too many people and too few jobs.
As elections approach, let’s push the candidates to explain their views on this issue.
Bob Follett is a former publishing executive whose book ‘How to Keep Score in Business’ will be published in early 2012. He lives in Keystone.
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