Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cheap labor: Our children in their corporate context

Those curious about what happens to unskilled high school graduates in South Carolina -- and the choices made for them by corporate titans whose interest is the bottom line, the profit margin -- would do well to read Adam Davidson's "Making It in America," a feature in the current edition of "The Atlantic" magazine.

Davidson enjoyed his visit to Greenville and Easley -- "a largely charmless place, thick with chain restaurants and shopping centers" -- to meet 22-year-old Maddie Parlier at nearby Standard Motor Products.

The last time I visited the factory, Maddie was training a new worker. Teaching her to operate the machine took just under two minutes. Maddie then spent about 25 minutes showing her the various instructions Standard engineers have prepared to make certain that the machine operator doesn’t need to use her own judgment. “Always check your sheets,” Maddie says.

By the end of the day, the trainee will be as proficient at the laser welder as Maddie. This is why all assembly workers have roughly the same pay grade—known as Level 1—and are seen by management as largely interchangeable and fairly easy to replace. A Level 1 worker makes about $13 an hour, which is a little more than the average wage in this part of the country. The next category, Level 2, is defined by Standard as a worker who knows the machines well enough to set up the equipment and adjust it when things go wrong. The skilled machinists like Luke are Level 2s, and make about 50 percent more than Maddie does.

For Maddie to achieve her dreams—to own her own home, to take her family on vacation to the coast, to have enough saved up so her children can go to college—she’d need to become one of the advanced Level 2s. A decade ago, a smart, hard-working Level 1 might have persuaded management to provide on-the-job training in Level-2 skills. But these days, the gap between a Level 1 and a 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.

A high school graduate with no college education, Parlier is classified as an unskilled "Level 1" worker whose job exists only because hiring unskilled Level 1 workers is still less expensive than buying electronic robot arms to do the task she does.

Davidson learns from factory manager Tony Scalzitti, Parlier's employer,

Tony explains that Maddie has a job for two reasons. First, when it comes to making fuel injectors, the company saves money and minimizes product damage by having both the precision and non-precision work done in the same place. Even if Mexican or Chinese workers could do Maddie’s job more cheaply, shipping fragile, half-finished parts to another country for processing would make no sense.

Second, Maddie is cheaper than a machine. It would be easy to buy a robotic arm that could take injector bodies and caps from a tray and place them precisely in a laser welder. Yet Standard would have to invest about $100,000 on the arm and a conveyance machine to bring parts to the welder and send them on to the next station. As is common in factories, Standard invests only in machinery that will earn back its cost within two years.

For Tony, it’s simple: Maddie makes less in two years than the machine would cost, so her job is safe—for now. If the robotic machines become a little cheaper, or if demand for fuel injectors goes up and Standard starts running three shifts, then investing in those robots might make sense.

“What worries people in factories is electronics, robots,” she tells me. “If you don’t know jack about computers and electronics, then you don’t have anything in this life anymore. One day, they’re not going to need people; the machines will take over. People like me, we’re not going to be around forever.”

This young South Carolinian has a job because she's cheaper than a machine.

Let's stand back and look at this in a larger context: South Carolina's children are seen by corporate employers as business expenses of various sizes. If the business expense is smaller than the cost of a machine, then our children are added to the payroll.

And what does being added to the payroll mean? Does it mean they have a career?

No, it means the corporation is spending the least amount of its profit margin to yield the greatest production value -- and in most cases, offering the least (or no) health insurance coverage, the least (or no) retirement benefit package, the least (or no) opportunity for education or advancement within the corporation, and the least (or no) freedom and autonomy in self-determination.

As an expense to the corporation, the cost of our children -- our most precious legacy in life, and the vessel into which we pour all of our resources -- is weighed against the cost of a machine to produce the same value to the corporation. When the moment arrives that a machine is cheaper than our children, thus yielding a greater profit to the corporation, our children will be abandoned.

How much is your child worth to its corporate assessor?

Davidson views Parlier, and those like her, in a historical context:

Productivity, in and of itself, is a remarkably good thing. Only through productivity growth can the average quality of human life improve. Because of higher agricultural productivity, we don’t all have to work in the fields to make enough food to eat. Because of higher industrial productivity, few of us need to work in factories to make the products we use.

In theory, productivity growth should help nearly everyone in a society. When one person can grow as much food or make as many car parts as 100 used to, prices should fall, which gives everyone in that society more purchasing power; we all become a little richer. In the economic models, the benefits of productivity growth should not go just to the rich owners of capital. As workers become more productive, they should be able to demand higher salaries.

Throughout much of the 20th century, simultaneous technological improvements in both agriculture and industry happened to create conditions that were favorable for people with less skill. The development of mass production allowed low-skilled farmers to move to the city, get a job in a factory, and produce remarkably high output. Typically, these workers made more money than they ever had on the farm, and eventually, some of their children were able to get enough education to find less-dreary work.

In that period of dramatic change, it was the highly skilled craftsperson who was more likely to suffer a permanent loss of wealth. Economists speak of the middle part of the 20th century as the “Great Compression,” the time when the income of the unskilled came closest to the income of the skilled.

The double shock we’re experiencing now—globalization and computer-aided industrial productivity—happens to have the opposite impact: income inequality is growing, as the rewards for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish.

Bur Parlier is a person, not a historical fact, and the group of South Carolinians she represents makes up a large part of the state's population and workforce. So, can it be said that South Carolina and America, as a state and a government, have helped Parlier and her contemporaries in the workforce find meaningful careers, or that they have simply produced Parlier and her contemporaries as inexpensive options for corporate entities?

Davidson ponders it:

I went to South Carolina, and spent so much time with Maddie, precisely because these issues are so large and so overwhelming. I wanted to see how this shift affected regular people’s lives. I didn’t come away with a handy list of policies that would solve all the problems of unskilled workers, but I did note some principles that seem important to improving their situation.

It’s hard to imagine what set of circumstances would reverse recent trends and bring large numbers of jobs for unskilled laborers back to the U.S. Our efforts might be more fruitfully focused on getting Maddie the education she needs for a better shot at a decent living in the years to come. Subsidized job-training programs tend to be fairly popular among Democrats and Republicans, and certainly benefit some people. But these programs suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go, disproportionately, to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and—not least—family support.

So those who have, get; those who have not, get not.

Sound familiar?

David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, noticed Davidson's article and commented on Parlier's circumstance in a column last week. "A good attitude and hustle have taken Parlier as far as they can. It’s hard, given her situation, to acquire the skills she needs to realize the American dream," he writes.

Across America, millions of mothers can’t rise because they don’t have adequate support systems as they try to improve their skills. Tens of millions of children have poor life chances because they grow up in disorganized environments that make it hard to acquire the social, organizational and educational skills they will need to become productive workers.

I would prefer that Brooks concern himself more with helping young people become productive citizens than productive workers, as America is a nation of citizens, not just a generator of workers. But his emphasis on helping young people attain "social, organizational and educational skills" is spot-on.

Are we, as a state, doing what's necessary to ensure that our children become productive citizens?

Ponder that, then ask: Are we, as a state, doing what's necessary to ensure that our children become cheap workers?

What a symposium these two questions would make.

No comments:

Post a Comment