The Future Is Bleak For Those Seeking the Jobs of the Past

The Future Is Bleak For Those Seeking the Jobs of the Past
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Lest anyone was still hoping for a different verdict, the jury is in: There is no economic future for anyone hoping to find one in the economy of the past.

Foxconn, the Taiwan-based assembler of the iPhone and other high-tech products, has made that even clearer than ever with its announcement that the plant it has promised to build in Wisconsin will provide far fewer jobs for semi-skilled workers and more for highly-skilled ones.

In the summer of 2017, Foxconn, one of the first notable foreign companies to respond positively to President Donald Trump’s call to make more products in the United States, promised to build a $10 billion liquid crystal display plant and create up to 13,000 jobs in Wisconsin.

But the price was steep. Governments have been paying to play for a long time, but under the Foxconn deal, the state government will pay more than any state government before - and will play a lot less than it was hoping to. Instead of a Generation 10.5 factory full of workers building panels for 75-inch TVs, Foxconn is now saying it is planning to build a Generation 6 plant producing panels that are about half the size, probably requiring a considerably smaller investment. (Although the company says it will provide as many jobs as originally claimed.)

Most importantly, Foxconn executives told the Asian Nikkei Times in August it now plans a substantially different mix of labor than originally projected. While the company initially expected that about 75 percent of the employees at the plant would be assembly line workers, now it anticipates that only about 10 percent of employees will be - compared to about 90 percent knowledge workers. Almost all of the actual assembly line work will be performed by robots. Moreover, this dramatic change in the company’s planned worker mix occurred as a result of a change in their thinking over just six months!

Most important is the transformation in the nature of the workers being planned for the south Wisconsin plant. In all likelihood, it will offer fewer jobs, but the jobs that are created - developing ways to maximize the efficiency of a robot workforce, sitting at computer screens directing robots, quickly repairing them when they break down - will pay more and offer a more secure future.

The Foxconn decision reflects a central fact about the new economy: There will be, and are, plenty of jobs available, many ways to make a living. But they will be high-paid jobs demanding high-levels skills. Succeeding in tomorrow’s workforce- indeed today’s - demands that we can do things that robots, computers and other technologies cannot: Absorb and utilize nuanced, abstract information that we can grasp far better than any computer.

The latest news from Foxconn dashes state politicians’ already gossamer hopes. From the outset the deal was heavily criticized for its cost per job - at best about eight times more than any previous state government subsidy in the United States. In fact, the projected state subsidy has zoomed a billion from an initial $3 billion. Even at the lower figure, state auditors had calculated it would take about 30 years to pay for itself - even when based on some generous assumptions.

The nature of creating goods and services is changing, because the kinds of technologies we use to create them is changing. In the future, we will still make a living - no doubt a better living than ever before - but we will do so far more by using what’s above our neck rather than what’s below it.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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