In a recent op-ed in Composites World, a trade magazine for the advanced composites industry, North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT) CEO James Austin presents his view on what the protectionist approach to trade led by Donald Trump will likely lead to. His piece is titled “Process automation: A model response to Trumponomics and Brexit” and, in it, he contends that the model response to Trump’s trade policies will be further automation:
If access to low-cost labor countries is restricted through trade barriers, or just an increased “buy home-produced” sentiment, an obvious response is to reduce to an absolute minimum the number of man hours it takes to produce composite parts, and to produce locally to the market demand. And the most obvious way to do this is through automation — to reduce the number of physical man hours per part rather than merely seeking the lowest cost labor. […]
Our newly developed tube manufacturing process is a case in point, from which our first product to market is a new-technology golf shaft – TPTGolf. We have seen little meaningful development in composite golf shaft manufacturing since the early 1990s — other than to move all production, wholesale, to China to chase cost — and so we see our new, fully automated manufacturing process as a model response not only to the slowly rising labor costs in Asia, but also to the economic realities of our time. Happily, the new process also produces a shaft that plays very well.
Reducing labor costs has, of course, long been the goal of manufacturers. Their duty is to their owners and shareholders, to increase their wealth to the greatest extent possible. Because providing employment to their fellow citizens is never taken into account in the calculus of their decision making, driving down labor costs through automation as well as by reducing the influence of organized workers is a top priority.
What’s interesting in this conversation is the unintended impact of Donald Trump’s protectionism. Though he spews the rhetoric of “bringing jobs back to America”, there’s little likelihood that will happen. Between the decades-long effort to destroy labor unions and a concerted effort on the part of corporate leaders to automate every single part of manufacturing that can be automated, workers are left behind and enriching society in general takes a back seat to enriching those who profit most from manufacturing corporations. The result of Trump’s actions won’t do much to help the plight of the blue collar workers in America and will, in fact, be more likely to jump start an even greater push to automate workers right out of their jobs.
This is an opportunity for Democrats, should they decide to take it. Now is the time for them to begin pushing programs that will provide incentives to retain and hire more blue collar workers, not fewer. They should be promoting training and employment assistance to make these workers more competitive in the new, ever more automated economy. Without an “automation tax”, something that will never be enacted, the only answer to “robots taking our jobs” is to train people to build, program, and maintain those robots and the facilities in which they operate. In the meantime, they need to keep informing American workers that Trump’s promises are hollow and that, like their cousins in the coal mining industry who have been replaced by automation, his policies will lead to MORE automation to replace cheap foreign labor. Democrats need to find a way to help those workers and with more than just rhetoric. If they can do that, their fortunes will change.