At a rally last week in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, WI, President-Elect Donald Trump promised that his administration will focus on “three words: jobs, jobs jobs.” Two of the focal points of his post-election campaign have been keeping US factory jobs, like at the Carrier furnace factory in Indiana, from moving to Mexico, as well as prioritizing American workers over foreign ones.
In Milwaukee county, where factories employ almost 16% of the workforce, these kinds of promises are particularly popular with Trump’s supporters. But although Trump succeeded in convincing Carrier to keep its plant in the US with $7 million in tax breaks, the factory’s parent company has said it will invest $16 million into making the factory competitive through automation, which will ultimately cut human jobs.
For the most part, Trump supporters at the rally didn’t seem to mind. They’ve known the automation of factory jobs was coming whether they liked it or not, they told BuzzFeed News. For some, that means that the president-elect has no obligation keep factory jobs safe from the machines that would streamline them out of existence.
“I don't see any negative to innovation in automation. We're ready to get moving with the times,” said Jodi Perkins, a supporter living in Milwaukee. “He doesn’t need to protect those frontline jobs. We’ve got to get the boot of government off the neck of business.”
Mel Geschke, a forklift operator with Quad/Graphics who attended the Milwaukee rally, said automation threatens his job daily. Automated guided vehicles can do the work of forklift operators, though Geschke believes they do not work as well as humans in fast-paced situations.
Yet he feels ambivalent about whether Trump should protect his job. He said, “He'll do what he can to protect my job from automation, but in some cases you've got to go with the flow.”
American manufacturing, by many measures, is succeeding even as the president-elect reiterates that America “is losing,” as he did at the Wisconsin rally. Mark Miro, a senior fellow at the Brookings research institute, writes in the MIT Technology Review that American manufacturing is now producing 254% of what it did in 1980 while employing just 66% of the workforce of that same year.
Reverting manufacturing processes from machines to people would likely be bad for the bottom line of many businesses. The Boston Consulting Group found in 2015 that it costs only $8 per hour for a robot to do the same job — spot welding to produce cars — that a human could do for $25 per hour. Trump’s own labor secretary pick Andy Puzder has spoken publicly about preferring robots to human workers.
Several supporters at the rally offered the consolation that workers who lost their jobs to automation could become repairmen or technicians in the same factories.
Tim Kempen summed up a common feeling at the rally: “If we don't stay with new tech, we'll be less productive and fall behind other countries. It's sad that a machine may take jobs, but at least those people could go out and get jobs repairing the machines.”
But to Michael Gallant, head of communications at n-Join, a company that uses artificial intelligence to monitor manufacturing machines for deficiencies, the comparison of frontline factory jobs to more specialized occupations does not hold up. “That’s not an apples to apples analogy. Becoming a technician or an engineer requires a great deal training, whereas frontline manufacturing does not.”
And jobs for those without that training are fast disappearing. A recent Georgetown study found that of the 11.6 million jobs added after the economic crisis of 2008, workers with some degree of higher education took 11.5 million of them.
Workers with a high school education lost 5.6 million jobs in the recession, the study said, and regained less than 1% of them because many of the jobs for high school graduates like manufacturing and clerical work have been automated.
Tomas Jimenez, a sociologist of immigration at Stanford University, told BuzzFeed News Trump’s supporters’ ambivalence towards automation but enthusiastic support for the Carrier deal and his anti-illegal immigration agenda isn’t entirely surprising. “It’s easier to blame people than it is to blame things. It’s possible that among supporters there is a sentiment that machines have no agency, but people — Mexico and its emigrants — do.”
“Our responsibility is more to look for companies that manufacture their wares in the US,” said Jodi Perkins at the rally. “It’s more important to keep jobs in the US than to protect them from automation.”
Trump, for his part, hasn’t said much about the impact automation may have on his plans for the American economy. But in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times, the president-elect said the US would build more factories under his administration because “we don’t make anything.” He did, however, acknowledge that “robotics is becoming very big.” His solution? “We’ll build the robots, too.”