Bringing back US manufacturing work?

One of the promises driving support for Donald Trump in the recent U.S. election was his promise to bring back manufacturing work.  Many Americans have seen their industrial jobs disappear without much prospect of return.  They and Trump blame globalization for moving these jobs overseas.  Thus, changes in trade policy are touted to bring them back.

However, as Mark Muro explains in Technology Review, much U.S. manufacturing work has been replaced not by workers overseas but by automation.  American manufacturers now employ robots to perform much of the labor that was performed by employees in earlier days.  Because this change has occurred domestically, changes in trade policy will not reverse it.

I suppose one alternative would be for U.S. workers to rise up and smash their robot replacements.  However, Americans seem to like their technology too much for such measures.

An alternative measure would be to place more emphasis on "adjustment", that is, government support for new skills training and job search.  Muro points out that the U.S. government has a "Trade Adjustment Assistance" (TAA) program but it has proven anemic and ineffectual. 

Canada has a more robust system of job retraining, which the U.S. might consider emulating:

  • "Members of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, set aside an average of 0.6% of GDP a year for “active labour-market policies”—job centres, retraining schemes and employment subsidies—to ease the transition to new types of work. America spends just 0.1% of GDP. By neglecting those whose jobs have been swallowed by technology or imports, America’s policymakers have fuelled some of the anger about freer trade."

Of course, such polices are considered too "socialist" by many U.S. policy makers, so the chances of boosting the TAA seem remote.

Of course, technological change will continue to create jobs but, without support in the form of education, job search, and health care, those jobs will not be accessible to Trump's aggrieved supporters. 

It remains to be seen how the electorate might react to such an outcome.

FANUC 6-axis welding robots.jpg
CC BY 3.0, Link

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