United States manufacturers are hiring at the fastest pace in more than a decade to keep up with new orders but sweeping technological advances could cost thousands of factory workers their jobs in years to come.
Reuters reported on Monday, that at a new factory in upstate New York, which is due to chum out its first computer chips this year, technicians are calibrating robots to ferry material from machine to machine using miles of overhead track.
“This factory is designed to be fully automated, meaning theoretically it requires no human intervention at all,” said Eric Choh, general manager at the facility run by semiconductor maker GlobalFoundries.
The company is hiring engineers and programmers who are still needed to mind the machines. But “compared to 20 years ago, today we don’t need a lot of labor,” said Choh.
Last year, factories added 237,000 jobs – the most since 1997 – and that burst in hiring is seen stretching into this year as the economy recovers from the 2007-09 recession.
But a renaissance for industrial employment is unlikely. Over the long term, factory job creation looks destined to stagnate as technology advances, and manufacturers’ role in the labor market will likely continue a decades-long decline.
A Labor Department report published on February 1 projected factory employment will drop to 11.5 million workers by 2020 – down from 11.9 million in January – despite expectations production will increase in coming years.
The projected decline in employment suggests it will be hard for President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidates like Rick Santorum to protect factory jobs as ardently as they have promised on the campaign trail.
Factories have a special place in American hearts because they have been the gateway to the middle class for millions of workers.
Even though the U ni ted States rcmai ns a pre-em i nent manu fact uri ng power, account: ng for ahou t a fifth of global factory output, only nine per cent of its workforce is engaged in factory activity, and that percentage is falling.
Manufacturers’ share of the labour market will likely drop to seven per cent by the end of the decade, according to the government projections, down from nearly a third in the 1950s when unskilled workers played a bigger role.
“You just do not need as many people as in the days when you were essentially running a Ford assembly line,” said James Franklin, a Labour Department economist who helped draw up the long-term employment projections.
The outlook is more positive in the near-term. At Global Foundries’ sprawling new plant 111 Saratoga County, for example, Choh plans to hire about 500 more people by year’s end.
And across the country, factory payrolls will likely swell by 173,000 this year, says the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, an industry research group.
Last month, Daimler Trucks announced it would hire 1,200 new workers at a North Carolina plant that makes long-haul trucks that sell well in Australia and South Africa.
But analysts say much of the recent hiring spurt is just a temporary rebound from the recession, when manufacturing output fell about 20 per cent and factories laid off two million people.