EDITORIAL: An industrial revolution without blue-collar jobs: Editorial Agenda 2013 [The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.]
(Oregonian (Portland, OR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 01--Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine who left that job to run a start-up manufacturing company, had an optimistic message for Oregonians Tuesday -- unless you happen to be an unemployed blue-collar worker.
Speaking at Greater Portland Inc.'s annual economic summit, Anderson said that 3D printers will lead what he called a third industrial revolution by lowering the cost of production and helping to return manufacturing to the United States. But there's a catch:
"Nobody can tell you how many jobs we'll bring back, and we're not bringing back the same jobs that left," he said in an interview with The Oregonian editorial board after the speech.
In other words, manufacturers are returning operations to the United States because robotics has reduced the number of employees needed, and therefore decreased the cost advantage of Asian factories staffed by low-wage workers. But most of the workers will need software programming or computer-assisted design skills. Or, as Anderson bluntly put it, there will be two types of workers in the new era of factories: "those who program robots and those who take out the trash."
In a macroeconomic sense, this is good news for the Portland area. Portland attracts young creatives, who Anderson and others think will drive the future economy through innovation, by the thousands. It has an established technology base and an envied quality of life. Each year when groups like Greater Portland Inc. get together for meetings, business and political leaders rattle off impressive lists of success stories. This year's list included the arrival of Salesforce.com, a recommitment to the metro area by Nike, the creation of startups such as Athletepath and expansions by companies as diverse as Intel and Leatherman.
Yet, despite all the success stories, Portland area unemployment remained a stubbornly high 7.3 percent in August -- the same as the U.S. rate. Anderson's analysis of the evolving economy helps to explain the slow growth in jobs, as well as the challenges facing municipal and state policymakers.
Anderson, author of "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution," describes the emergence of digital manufacturing as the second technology-driven revolution in 30 years. His timeline puts the computer revolution in the 1980s, when home computers and printers became commonplace. In many ways Oregon as a whole has adapted well, with the Silicon Forest sprouting to offset lost timber jobs and the city earning international recognition for green industries -- particularly green construction. But newcomers to the region have filled many of those jobs. And many of the former timber-industry workers are on unemployment or struggling in low-pay jobs.
Anderson calls these workers "a lost generation." But policymakers cannot and should not write them off so easily. The in-vogue idea of increasing the minimum wage offers false hope: raising the floor but leaving these workers at the bottom of the pile. Instead, Portland should sress more-focused job retraining and increased access to career and technical education.
Until Portland area leaders stand up at an annual summit to show tangible examples of progress the region has made in teaching new skills to unemployed workers and offering viable career training to students who aren't on the college track, the economy will continue to have a hole that not even the most advanced robot can patch.
(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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