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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Humans Need Not Apply

In the last post, we discussed steps that could be taken to "grow" the forest products industry in the Northeastern United States. A group of Northeastern government officials had invited my ideas for growing the industry. One might ask..."why?"

Are the politicians of the region suddenly feeling an urge to increase the profits of an industry that has been politically incorrect for decades in the region? Are they worried that the abundant forest resources of the region are going largely under-utilized? Are they worried that too many cabinets, flooring and furniture pieces are being manufactured in distant locations?

Of course not. They need jobs...to keep their jobs. And the forest products sector is one that once offered hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Northeast...but that number is dropping precipitously. For instance, wood industry employment in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont decreased by one third in the decade from 2003 to 2013. The good news is that the number has rebounded by 10% since the dog days of early 2010.

Wood-Products Manufacturing Jobs in Northern New England
Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont
YearJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDecAnnual
200312112118631196711943118911189411959120591193211813118021190111928
200411873117921193112140122481238612315124741246612298121811221312193
200511912118471195112112121171223612047121041194211801117401173411962
200611285113121139811516115851155211344113871116910974107621076811254
200710368103531054010764108851106710849109521081210794107731077710744
200810199999297849831978999299907982396059240897186699645
20097897756074927580768378007823769476477660765475027667
20107237716873307480766976857681767476497543747974927507
20117454753576267506756275897582758474987462747274767529
20127246728374267485759776877616766876817646759875747542
2013746475587623775779528048
Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor.

But the longer trend is hard to ignore. Even through the "boom" years of the housing market from 2003 to 2005, industry employment remained flat. And anyone who has visited industry shows over the past decade knows why. Technology is helping business owners replace humans to keep their costs under control.

In my advice to the government officials, I ignored the impacts of technology that were already underway, and focused on the other areas of costs which are being imposed largely by government policy. The hope is that by trimming their sails a little, governments could reduce the non-market costs imposed on businesses and enable them to invest a little more in their work forces.

But even under the best case scenario, those hopes for increased employment seem more like fairy dust with each passing year.



Back in the 1980's, my graduate research led me to programming an "expert system" that helped employees of a gypsum wallboard plant diagnose process problems in real time. The project required me to spend a summer on-site at the plant. On my first day, a local real estate lady showed me a couple of apartments, during which she asked me what I would be doing at the plant. As I gave her the simplest explanation, her immediate reaction, in a sweet but sincere Southern drawl, was "You're not going to take our jobs away, I hope?"

The question somewhat startled me, because I had never considered that possibility. I quickly assured her, that no, of course not, my system didn't replace any workers...it simply helped them do their job better.

For some reason, she didn't seem convinced. And I had a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

1 comment:

Keith Atherholt said...

Change is hard for most people. I used to think I was accepting of change.......until I was faced with making dramatic changes in the way I manage. This is a disturbing video, but not so if we grasp the impending changes to our industry, manufacturing, and the labor force of the now and the future!

Chuck, Thanks for sharing this!

Instead of being frightened by this impending change, I was thinking about mechanizing some of the things I don't like to do. Yard work, cleaning my basement, and painting the trim are easy ones to identify. What about some of the more difficult activities - like working through a budget, implementing disciplinary action, dealing with unruly children, protecting my home and family from predators, and many more? Interesting that most of the "difficult" duties I may be responsible for don't pay well, however, we would quickly identify them as being much more important than the "mundane" activities a robot could do! The employment problem may be best addressed by understanding the need for changes in our value systems. Good luck with that one!