Labor Day is the one day every year when we come together as a nation to celebrate the achievements of the American worker and the history of the labor movement in this country. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will join President Obama (who spent the weekend meeting with G20 leaders issued a Labor Day message on September 1) as well as a variety of politicians and public officials from across the country, in commemorating the day.
You can bet that their lofty rhetoric will be accompanied by a promise to restore the nation to its manufacturing heyday.
At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, for instance, Clinton promised to push policies that will help foster a “manufacturing renaissance.” Not to be outdone, Donald Trump has long said he will be “the greatest job-producing president in American history.”
What neither Clinton, Trump, Obama, or any other public official is likely to do on Labor Day, however, is to level with the American worker. None of them are likely to confess the hard truth: the jobs they keep talking about bringing back to the United States are not coming back. None of them are likely to have the guts and foresight to tell the public that instead of making empty promises they will focus their energy on helping the American worker prepare for a time, in the next decade or so, in which many of the tasks they perform at their current job are increasingly automated. None of them are likely to acknowledge what is the reality: that we need to prepare collectively for “new” types of work and learn to co-exist in an economy alongside artificial intelligence and robotics.
It is bordering on malpractice that our current candidates public officials have not done more to help prepare us all for a future in which accelerated technological change has a major impact on our labor force.
How do we know these jobs are not returning? Consider the following evidence. First, over the last several years, a small but growing number of companies have reopened factories in the United States. Unfortunately, jobs have not returned with them because many of these plants are increasingly automated. Second, since 2009, manufacturing output has increased more than twenty percent, but that hasn’t resulted in an equivalent increase in the number of jobs, i.e., manufacturing employment has grown just five percent in the same period. Third, manufacturing output is higher than it has been for decades – it is up $2.2 trillion in 2015 from $1.7 trillion in 2009. Despite this, employment in the sector is lower than it has been since the mid-twentieth century and total employment has decreased by a third since 1970.
Automation is not the sole reason for this, but it is seen by most experts as an increasingly important factor. In 2014 almost half of the leading economists and other experts interviewed for a PEW research study said that they “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”
There is no question that a portion of the jobs many of us perform today will be lost to robotics, automation, and the rise of artificial intelligence in the next few decades. A recent study by AppliedTechonomics, for instance, found that we currently have the technological capacity to automate 52 percent of the activities performed by workers in the manufacturing sectors. Moreover, the study found that manufacturing is the second most automatable sector in the global economy, just behind the services industry.
Given this reality it is bordering on malpractice that our current candidates and public officials have not done more to help prepare us all for a future in which accelerated technological change has a major impact on our labor force.
There are many steps we can take to confront that reality -- from better education and training for impacted workers, to more controversial proposals like offering incentives to corporations to encourage them not to automate at such a fast past or even providing a guaranteed minimum income to everyone in our country.
There is much that can and should be done to prepare all of us for the future, beginning with an honest discussion about the changes workers are going to face – prepared or not – in the coming years.
Labor Day 2016 is not too late to begin having this discussion. Our current crop of candidates, as well as our elected leaders, have a responsibility to all Americans to get the conversation started.
Saquib Hyat-Khan is Founder and Chief Executive at AppliedTechonomics.