It’s way more than abundantly clear that many Americans have long felt the sting of globalization, manufacturing automation, and other realities in the form of lost jobs, greatly diminished prosperity, and little or no hope for their futures.
Just as unfortunate is that Americans in economically vibrant regions have had really poor empathy (especially Silicon Valley), much less offered token gestures to assist in finding solutions. As we’ve all witnessed, this reality manifested itself with great lucidity in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Our new president promises to bring back manufacturing jobs to the US, using whatever means and tactics necessary, from breaking up international trade agreements to brute-force methods of threatening import duties and publicly shaming corporate CEOs.
While these measures are welcome to many, and could indeed yield short-term results in bringing forth job opportunities, it’s uncertain as to whether they can be sustained in the long run. Companies ultimately have to make decisions in their own interests.
Lackluster Productivity in the US
Globalization and automation are the most highly cited factors in the demise of American manufacturing, energy production, and other industries. But there’s an even more elementary cause: systemically low productivity growth.
It’s been characteristically slow the past several decades, but US productivity growth has really been declining since the early 2000s with no apparent forecast for significant improvement.
The problem is that over the past several decades, we as a society have been inclined to consume more than we produce. Americans would much rather make money and spend it, than expend the effort and capital to develop new products that can be sold domestically and abroad.
Nurturing complete product life cycles in the US – from R&D to manufacturing, and ultimately retail or export – is essential to bolster our companies, make them stronger and profitable, and organically increase wages. These are the elementary ingredients that add up to a positively virtuous economic cycle.
When an economy like ours is perpetually dependent on consumer spending, the persistent demand for consumption tends to bring downward pressure on pricing as sellers compete fiercely for their customers. The end result? Manufacturers look abroad for cheaper ways to produce their products, which then allows retail companies to procure goods at lower cost.
Corporate America’s remarkable influence in politics has been a driving factor in the establishment of international trade agreements that favor cheaper US goods – the same pacts that many of us so passionately despise.
Blame NAFTA, but really, it’s the American consumer that’s the culprit.
We Need to Create and Sell Again
To right this errant sailing ship, what’s essential in the US is a common, fundamental understanding that if we can innovate, research, develop, and manufacture more within our shores, there’s more for us to sell and trade, more profit for companies to reinvest in us, and in the long run, a chance for that badly needed prosperity to return for everyone.
The American economy has always been, and will continue to be, a sleeping giant of truly great potential. There are a great many problems to solve in our society, which can also translate to great business opportunities.
Just think of all of the wonderful things we can do for healthcare, infrastructure, finance, education, environmental protection, natural energy, renewable energy, transportation, agriculture, travel and leisure, real estate, and a whole lot more – while bettering ourselves and our communities.
Tech Will Be Critical in Revitalizing Productivity
Technology already has, and continues to be substantially pervasive in all phases of a product life cycle. In the future, we’re going to have to augment and expand our expertise in programming, software development, engineering, design, CAD, high-skill manufacturing, additive manufacturing, the cloud, science, and physics among the tech-related disciplines.
To be sure, this is all going require the intellect of engineers and scientists. But just as indispensable will be a wide range of modernized vocations and disciplines to support the enormous efforts necessary to assist in product ideation, design, prototyping, testing, and manufacturing.
Capitalizing on Our Untapped Labor Potential
Reawakening US productivity naturally entails new ideas, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and supportive public policy. But most importantly, we need an expansive, diverse, and highly available labor force.
We can’t just rely on Silicon Valley and other tech-heavy metro areas such as New York City and Boston. Our needs for labor participation will far exceed the talent pool available from these areas, and even from immigration.
We need to bring out the welcome mat to all Americans everywhere, and give them opportunities to take part in making our nation the dominant purveyor of technology and essential product solutions.
And many of the tools for training and engagement are already at our disposal: distance learning, micro-credentials, online certifications, coding boot camps, video and web conferencing, hackathons, makerspaces, and so on. Combining these with apprenticeships and paid training opportunities will be highly beneficial and absolutely worthy investments for companies looking to bolster their labor and talent pools for the long run.
In conclusion, a kind request to all of us who have economically benefited from technology: Let’s stop looking inward at ourselves as a cozy society of tech geeks earning a comfortable living, and see what we can do to make a great country even better and prosperous – for everyone, and our future.