November 11, 2016

Some factory jobs just aren’t coming back. Credit: Freaktography / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decline of manufacturing in America is a decades-old story: globalization and automation took away stable, working class jobs. And it looks like they’re not coming back. But not all Americans believe that; at least many who voted for Donald Trump. MIT’s Andrew McAfee has been writing about robots taking our jobs before it was cool. We talk with him about why we’re seeing a surge of nostalgia for factory jobs - and why we need to get over it.

Three Takeaways:

  • We’re in the middle of a giant shift in what skills are needed in the American workforce. And we haven’t paid enough attention to the people who haven’t yet adapted. “We have concentrated for too long on just extolling the virtues of progress and trade,” McAfee says. “But we were not mindful enough of the people who feel left behind or ripped off by the world that we’re creating.” 
  • “There are tens of millions of people in this country that I don’t think are ever going to work regularly again,” says Bill Barry, who helped retrain steelworkers laid off from Sparrows Point steel mill near Baltimore. “The traditional pictures of the steel industry are people working with the huge flames in the background… When I show the steel industry today, it’s people sitting at a computer panel. And the machines are doing all the work.”
  • When advancing technology and American jobs collide, how will Trump respond? McAfee isn’t really sure. “If his basic constituency... start[s] to not like driverless cars, for example, because they can see that it’s going to put truck drivers out of business... I honestly have no idea which way a Trump administration would break on that issue.”

More reading:

NPR, Andrew McAfee, Donald Trump, election, innovation hub, pri, WGBH, Kara Miller

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