Don Cunningham: As Technology Evolves, No Use Yearning for Economic Days of Old
By Colin McEvoy on February 15, 2017
Men once made a living hammering iron into shoe for horses. Then along came the combustion engine and automobiles.
In a more recent age, there were milkmen, elevator car operators, telephone switchboard operators and, not so long ago, video store clerks. I can remember all but the switchboard operators thanks to the Orr’s Department Store in downtown Bethlehem still using elevator drivers in the early 1970s.
My grandmother had a job with the Civil Air Patrol Auxiliary during World War II. She stood atop a high tower to patrol for enemy aircraft – in west Bethlehem. I doubt she got paid. I hope not. The Christmas City and its steel mills, along with my grandmother, would have been doomed by the time she spotted the Luftwaffe. Radar became a much better option.
What innovation and technology createth they also taketh away. Not long from now, the final tollbooth collectors, bank tellers and store clerks will be in the same category as milkmen: jobs that are gone, and nearly forgotten. Very little is permanent. As the Irish poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy wrote, “Each age is a dream that is dying or one that is coming to birth.”
It does little good to look backward. Yearning for the economic days of old is about as fruitful as longing for the body you possessed at age 21. Neither will be back, even with a new gym membership or, for that matter, tariffs and new trade agreements. ArtsQuest is safe. Bethlehem Steel will not be returning.
Our public policy and economic development efforts need to focus on the jobs of today and, more importantly, those coming tomorrow. Innovation is required in preparing workers to meet the innovation in the economy.
It’s nearly impossible to find a campaign speech by either a Democrat or Republican that doesn’t contain the words jobs and education. That’s a good thing. Looking forward, however, is critical. Change is painful. Thoughtful humans want to alleviate the pain of those suffering, physically, mentally or economically. Empathy is good but healing can’t begin without truth.
Take a look at agriculture. In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. By 2000, it was down to just 2 percent. Remember Farm Aid, John Mellencamp and the national empathy about the loss of family farms in the 1980s? Made us feel good but it did nothing to stop the trend. Technology was the culprit. Bigger and more sophisticated machines could deliver more products at a lower price with fewer workers.
Agriculture has adjusted. While there aren’t more workers, there are growing local food economies, organic farms, farmer’s markets and farm to table restaurants because of a focus on quality over quantity.
Many of those displaced farm workers during the 20th Century found their way to jobs in manufacturing, often migrating from rural areas into cities. Today it’s the loss of those manufacturing jobs that we understandably lament. While Willie Nelson has yet to give a Manufacturing Aid concert our empathy and understanding is honed. Nearly 6 million jobs were lost in U.S. manufacturing between 2000 and 2009.
The Lehigh Valley has seen growth in manufacturing since the recession. Manufacturing is the largest part of the region’s GDP, with about 36,000 workers employed by 680 manufacturers. There is a lesson here.
Technology and innovation are making manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley competitive and successful. The steel mills are gone but biotech companies make everything from oral HIV, Ebola and Zika tests to artificial orthopedic joints. Much of it is built by robotics, artificial intelligence and sophisticated technology.
Today’s manufacturing jobs require innovative training and apprenticeships. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. are going unfilled due to a lack of available engineering and technical talent.
The U.S. Department of Labor last year provided $90 million to expand and diversify apprenticeship options, offering an additional $175 million in grants to dozens of public-private partnerships. In addition to the shop floor, office-based industries such as insurance, health care and IT are searching for trained talent. Apprenticeship programs focus on on-the-job training or technical instruction that pay both workers and companies and results in workers getting industry-recognized credentials.
Since company’s receive financial benefit they are less worried about training workers only for them to leave for better paying opportunities elsewhere. Higher skills development is critical to supporting modern advanced manufacturing. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposed budget adds state support for apprenticeships, albeit with limited funding.
It’s critical that innovation in training and education match innovation in the private marketplace. This is America’s future in manufacturing. Like agriculture, it’s quality over quantity. Vocational-technical schools and community colleges are as critical as Harvard and Yale.
It’s imperative that our longing for the days of old doesn’t blind us to building an economy and preparing a workforce for today.
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This story first appeared in the third issue of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development magazine, a publication developed by LVEDC and Journal Communications. This magazine[...]Continue to Next Page