Jobs and healthcare are the two most talked about issues in America today. Having pounded away on health care in several columns during the last month or so, I’m moving into the jobs arena this week.
Democratic presidential candidates are clobbering President Bush over the disappearance of jobs since his term in office began. And, at the state level, jobs, or more accurately the lack of jobs, was the big issue in last year`s gubernatorial election.
I think the answer to “Where have all the jobs gone?” can be found in several basic shifts in our society over the past decade. Technology has become the mantra in recent years and technology is essentially replacing human effort with machines. Thus, machines have eliminated lots and lots of jobs. Our first blush instinct is to pile-on robots used in manufacturing plants to replace human workers and, it`s true, robots are a factor. However, on a more personal level, ATMs have eliminated lots of bank jobs and self-checkout at grocery stores is eliminating some more jobs.
Another huge job killer has been the advance in communication technology. Globalization has forced American companies to get slimmer in order to survive. And it`s not just laborers who have gotten whacked. American management has also felt the sting of downsizing in pursuit of increased productivity. Communication devices such as e-mail, PCs and cell phones have replaced an entire level of middle management. Along with the demise of middle management, this same technology has thinned the ranks of clerical and secretarial employees as well.
Globalization is another change that has seriously impacted the job situation in the United States. Trade barriers that once protected American workers from the pressure of foreign competition have been swept away. Now the work goes to the lowest bidder who can provide the cheapest price with acceptable product quality. Many, if not most, American manufacturers have foreign subsidiaries located in other, lower cost countries to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. This migration of jobs out of the country has left hundreds of thousands of factory workers out in the cold with the likely prospect of replacing their former wages with lower paying service jobs. And, to make matters worse, lots of technical service jobs are being moved offshore as well.
Possible solutions to the jobs problem are diverse. Presidential candidate Al Sharpton proposes a federal “make work” program similar to the FDR projects of the 1930s to get people back to work. Several of the Democratic presidential contenders have campaigned on a pledge to repeal NAFTA and stop the exporting of American jobs offshore. Some want to impose a minimum wage in foreign countries to get wages up to our level. In addition to being impractical, mandating minimum wage laws for foreign countries is clearly unenforceable. Most politicians just wring their hands and say that they are committed to creating jobs with no real specific recommendations.
The American job scene is in trouble. Clearly, repealing NAFTA is going backwards and is not in the best interest of our country. The price of nearly everything we buy at Wal-Mart would go up dramatically and many more thousands of jobs that depend on exporting products would go by the wayside. An FDR make-work project is not a permanent fix either. It would just create a new welfare program for redistributing money from one segment of society to another.
No, neither repealing NAFTA nor creating unnecessary public jobs is the answer. The truth is we are in the midst of an economic transition and it`s not going to end soon. Over time, the global economy will equalize and the days of chasing cheap labor will end. Unfortunately, it`s going to be a long time in coming.
In the meantime, there is only one solution to the problem and that is education. Educated workers are flexible and can roll with the punches. They can seize new opportunities to replace the ones that are lost. They can adapt to new technologies and processes with minimum learning curve. And, they will be successful at finding good jobs.
Uneducated workers, on the other hand, are in a real fix. In the first place, these folks were probably doing the low-skill, low-pay jobs that have been permanently eliminated. Secondly, lacking education, they don`t have the necessary flexibility to adapt and move on. Their future is gloomy and there are a lot of them out there.
America, especially Mississippi, has got to become obsessed with education and training. Not only is it essential to the citizens, it`s equally important to our national interest. Some how we’ve got to get the message out to everyone that learning and education is critical for youngsters, but equally important, adults must commit to lifelong learning if they are to remain a viable part of the new economy.
Thought for the Moment – A chip on the shoulder is too heavy a piece of baggage to carry through life. – John Hancock (1737-1793), Statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence
Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.