America’s manufacturing heyday is gone and so are millions of jobs, lost to modernization. Despite what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin might think, the National Bureau of Economic Research and Silicon Valley executives, among many others, know it’s already happening.
But how soon automation will replace workers is not the real problem. The real threat to American jobs will come if China does it first.
Since the year 2000, the U.S. has lost five million manufacturing jobs. An estimated 2.4 million jobs went to low-wage workers in China and elsewhere between 1999 and 2011. The remainder fell victim to gains in efficiency of production and automation, making many traditional manufacturing jobs obsolete.
Though more than a million jobs have returned since the 2008 recession, the net loss has devastated the lives of millions of people and their families. Some blame robotics, others globalization. It turns out that those forces work together and have been equally hurtful to manufacturing jobs. The car industry, for example, imports more and more parts from abroad, while automating their assembly in the U.S.
As a robotics researcher and educator, I strongly advocate that the best way to get those jobs back is to build on our existing strengths, remaining a leader in manufacturing efficiency and doing the hard work to further improve our educational and social systems to cope with a changing workforce. Particularly when looking at what’s happening in China, it’s clear we need to maintain America’s international competitiveness, as we have done since the beginning of industrialization.
Yet China has also emerged as the largest growth market for robotics. Chinese companies bought more than twice as many industrial robots (68,000) in 2015 than American companies did (27,000). China’s Midea—an appliance manufacturer—just purchased the German robotic powerhouse Kuka.
China has understood that its competitive advantage of cheap labor will not last forever. Instead, labor costs will rise as its economy develops. Look at Foxconn, for example, the Taiwanese manufacturing contractor of the iPhone known for the high-pressure work environment at its plants in China. The company already uses more than 60,000 robots, and has said it wants to use as many as a million robots.
That’s a bold goal, especially…