Is the typical factory job way past its sell-by date?


King Salman of Saudi Arabia and US president Donald Trump taking part in a group photo at the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. EPA/ Saudi Press Agency

Economics, just as much as politics, was on the agenda when Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia. As the trip was ending, Mr Trump spelt out the implications of the massive arms deal and other commercial agreements signed in Riyadh: “Jobs, jobs, jobs”.

It’s reasonable to assume that the majority of these will be American factory jobs, a pleasing prospect for the president of the United States. Mr Trump ran on a campaign that promised to create “millions of manufacturing jobs”. The idea was to get US factories humming again, with armies of decently compensated workers happily going about their jobs.

It is a seductive image, one that western politicians routinely employ to suggest a connection with voters’ bread-and-butter issues. Less than a two weeks before he was elected president, Emmanuel Macron went to a Whirlpool plant in Amiens in northern France, in an attempt to empathise with concerns it might move to Poland. His election opponent, Marine Le Pen, had already declared that more things should be “Made in France”. UK prime minister Theresa May has promised a “comprehensive industrial strategy”. And George Osborne, Britain’s former finance minister, once spoke of “a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”.

But isn’t the traditional factory job rather old-fashioned for the 21st century? It’s worth noting Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s comments when he visited a Ford car factory near Detroit late last month. Mr Zuckerberg said that the assembly line workers he met perform the same set of tasks “every 52 seconds … 650 times a day”.

As a leading light of the new economy, he sounded both shocked and awed. By extrapolation, those jobs may be suitable for robots, who would be less trouble won’t need bathroom breaks, and are unlikely to be troubled by the sort of concentration-and-efficiency-sapping problems that affect human workers — a bad back, a sick child, a dying parent.

None of this is news. We already know, courtesy of the North American advocacy group Robotics Industries Association, that more than 265,000 robots were at work in US factories at the start of the year. We know of an Australian robot that can do more in one hour than two human bricklayers accomplish in a day or longer. We know there is a US-manufactured robot that can efficiently and more productively replace the supermarket shelf-stacker. And that Sweden has produced a cow-milking robot. We know that more robots and automated systems are in the works for a multitude of low-skilled tasks.

But the problem for 21st-century factories in the developed world goes deeper than automation. Everything points to the need for a whole new definition for the factory and its likely workforce. The late American business administration professor Warren Bennis offered the following thumbnail sketch back in the 1990s: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

What’s encouraging about that slightly jokey prediction is it continues to see a role for at least one human being in each factory. Even so, it’s undeniable that the traditional idea of factory jobs — thousands of human beings toiling cheek by jowl in a machine that builds the machine or some other mass-market product — is due for a rewrite. Value-added technological innovation is increasingly seen as the way to go, especially for developed countries faced with automation, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Consider the words of Republican Congressman Todd Rokita from the 4th District of Indiana, a state that voted for Mr Trump in the November 2016 presidential election. The incumbent congressman responded to the re-election challenge he personally faced from a Trump-supporting opponent by attacking the argument that Indiana needed more old-style factory jobs. No, said, Mr Rokita, Indiana does not need jobs that call for “shooting screws”. It needs knowledge economy work and it should prepare its people to staff it up. Mr Rokita won the election. And possibly the larger argument.

After all, as a study by the Asian Development Bank Institute has found, the US economy doesn’t lose much because Apple’s iPhones are manufactured in China. The process of assembling an iPhone — done by Chinese workers in factories in China — apparently accounts for just 3.6 per cent of the production cost. The companies that developed the signature technologies and provide the components earn the bulk of the ticket price.

Of course, what works for America doesn’t suit everywhere else. Developing countries such as India, which are populous and poor, need all the jobs they can get. The UAE, which is building its manufacturing sector, will obviously also see a smorgasbord of factory jobs of all sorts at least until 2025.

Not so the West, which needs to prepare its workers for the factories of the future. The rise of robots for instance, which need to be serviced and programmed, is likely to create a slew of new factory jobs for humans — as technicians, coders and engineers. These new categories of work won’t be low-skilled in the way of the original factory jobs. These came into being in 18th-century Britain’s textile and brass mills and subsequently mutated in the early 20th century as the result of Henry Ford’s innovations.

Now that the factory job must be remodelled once again, it’s time for politics to unite with economics to sell the idea.