This Job Is Half Empty

I again heard someone on NPR today lamenting the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US.  It got me thinking about a couple of things:

  1. When I had my political awakening in high school debate in the 1970s, all of the complaints from the left were about how horrible blue collar workers had it in manufacturing jobs.  At that time, manufacturing jobs were labeled by leftish critics as dirty and dangerous, and, most common, as repetitious and boring (in the Fredrick Taylor legacy).  OK, so now that they all have nice clean service jobs, we are unhappy that they don't have those old manufacturing jobs?  These are folks whose agenda has nothing to do with the words they are actually speaking, and everything to do with creating dissatisfaction to facilitate government takeover of economic functions
  2. While I am sure the service sector is overtaking manufacturing (in the same way manufacturing overtook agriculture), to some extent the statistics are misleading.

    Let's take an automobile assembly plant circa 1955.  Typically, a
    large manufacturing plant would have a staff to do everything the
    factory needed.  They had people on staff to clean the bathrooms, to
    paint the walls, and to perform equipment maintenance.  The people who
    did these jobs were all classified as manufacturing workers, because
    they worked in a manufacturing plant.  Since 1955, this plant has
    likely changed the way it staffs these type jobs.  It still cleans the
    bathrooms, but it has a contract with an outside janitorial firm who
    comes in each night to do so.  It still paints the walls, but has a
    contract with a painting contractor to do so.  And it still needs the
    equipment to be maintained, but probably has contracts with many of the
    equipment suppliers to do the maintenance.

    So, today, there might be the exact same number of people in the
    factory cleaning bathrooms and maintaining equipment, but now the
    government classifies them as "service workers" because they work for a
    service company, rather than manufacturing workers.  Nothing has really
    changed in the work that people do, but government stats will show a
    large shift from manufacturing to service employment.

  3. I am tired of the whole McJobs meme.  Have you been in a McDonalds?  How many middle age auto worker types do you see working there?  None?  What you see are young people and recent entrants to the job market, including new immigrants.  What these people need more than anything is real experience with the basics of holding a job, including showing up reliably, working in a structured environment, following a process, and providing customer service.  Sure, they would prefer that to happen at $60 an hour, what they really need, and are getting, is a credible work experience they can use to go get higher paying jobs in the future.
  • Dan

    Don't forget the immense flexibility that a McDonalds job can provide. Once you've worked successfully at one, you can get on the schedule at another, halfway across the country, on very short notice. Need a 3 hour shift, 2 days a week? Your average busy McDonalds can probably accommodate that.

  • Excellent post! Especially the part about the left not actually caring about what they "say" but trying to find any excuse to socialize.

    I remember during the big terrorism debate a while back, my lefty friend told me we're no better than the enemy if we allow waterboarding. I told him how ridiculous that was and that he was obviously dealing in hyperbole.

    I'll never forget what he said, "The team with the best propaganda wins."

    That is, in a nutshell, the world view of the left.

  • JoshK

    Good post. Econ talk recently had a good interview with George Schultz. He made a good point. Most government statistics use the categorizations of the 1920's and are not always applicable any more.

  • Charlie B

    How many manufacturing jobs are actually lost to factory automation?

  • Would we hear as much lamenting over the loss of these manufacturing jobs (note : loss at the same time of all-time high in manufacturing output) if they weren't concentrated in areas that aren't adding job. That is, if all those jobs being added in high job-growth areas like Phoenix, the Inland Empire, Dallas and others were instead popping up in Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo and others that are where it would seem these manufacturing jobs are disappearing from would we hear as much about it?

  • I think I agree with your broader point (that leftist economic arguments are often opportunistic, and leftist state policies often counterproductive), but I will point out that when I moved to an area with mostly closed mills and much reduced manufacturing employment and population (i.e., North Adams and Adams MA), I noticed that McDonalds and other retail businesses employ many more middle-aged and older people of both sexes. They are also often "hang-outs" for retired people. Many if not most of the older workers and customers worked in local manufacturing mills (e.g., Sprague Electric) until about 15-20 years ago.

  • markm

    Charlie: Since American manufacturing output keeps increasing (as an absolute number, even though it must not be increasing as fast as our consumption as the percentage of imports keeps increasing), any net job loss must be due to productivity improvements such as automation. Of course, without those productivity improvements, we'd be losing manufacturing production as well as jobs - the work goes to whoever can do it cheapest on a per-unit basis.

  • I had years of experience in retail fast-food, and it was tremendously helpful for me. I know of very few other careers where employers assume that their employees have no prior training whatsoever, assume the cost of training them, and then dramatically reward hard work.

    All it takes to get into management in a fast-food place is a lot of hard work, and speaking English. I saw a bunch of folks who bought houses based on their salaries, so it's quite possible to do okay for oneself there.