Business & Tech

Trump wants to fight the effects of trade, but what about automation?

Karen Rosado made leather knives in Southbridge.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Karen Rosado made leather knives in Southbridge.

President Donald Trump has spoken often about trade’s effect on US manufacturing employment but has said comparatively little about another economic force that has caused factories to shed jobs: high-tech machines and automation.

At the Hyde Group’s Southbridge factory, the amount of work that 100 employees do now would have required 180 workers more than a decade ago, said Bob Clemence, the company’s vice president of sales.

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While the number of blue-collar assembly-line jobs at US factories has been dropping in huge numbers for decades, Enrico Moretti, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the number of engineers working in factories has about doubled. Future manufacturing jobs will probably require engineering skills and training, Moretti said.

At Hyde, the typical factory worker might operate two or three computerized machines at a time, and the work generally requires an associate’s degree or some college education, Clemence said. That’s a far cry from 20 years ago, when the factory used to host night classes to help employees earn high school degrees.

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“We could still do the GED,” Clemence said. “But I need someone coming in the door that already has that degree information. I don’t need somebody that is only running a fork truck.”

In his presidential farewell address Jan. 10, President Obama highlighted the effects of technology on the workforce, noting “the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete.” He also called for ensuring higher-level education, as well as stronger labor unions, to blunt the effect.

Even if future manufacturing employees are trained to handle robots and high-tech machines, the math is simple enough: Machines and robots require fewer workers on factory floors. When the appliance maker Carrier, a division of United Technologies Corp., agreed to keep in Indiana about 800 jobs it had planned to send to Mexico, it marked an early public relations win for Trump. Within days, however, United Technologies’ chief executive said new investments in the Indiana factory would probably result in automation and eventual job losses.

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The strongest advocates for bringing offshore manufacturing back to the United States acknowledge automation’s effect on the workforce but say it doesn’t negate the need for more domestic factories. Harry Mosser, founder of the Reshoring Institute, which encourages companies to bring manufacturing operations back to the United States, said that even a highly automated factory is better for workers than no factory at all.

“If you bring back any manufacturing, you bring back some employment,” he said.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.
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