Donald Trump has been crowing as companies including Ford renounce plans to move factories to Mexico. But the main beneficiaries of this shift back to the US aren’t saying much by way of celebration –industrial robots don’t tend to speak.
While globalisation’s detractors blame countries such as China and Mexico for stealing the factory jobs of the West, experts point to less obvious culprits which are harder to scapegoat and to overcome in an interconnected economy with complex supply chains.
Since US manufacturing employment peaked in the late 1970s, according to Michael Hicks of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana, “95 percent of job losses were due to productivity improvements including automation and computer technology, rather than trade”.
Indiana is one of the rust-belt states where Trump triumphed in November, and the president-elect has promised a punitive border tax against outsourcing companies as he bids to become "the greatest jobs producer that God ever created". But while the US economy is pumping out manufactured goods in record volumes, it is achieving that feat with 7.3 million fewer factory hands than in 1979, government figures show.
Automation has transformed the productivity of manufacturing since industrial robots first started painting, cutting, welding and assembling in the 1960s.
And experts point to more recent innovations such as artificial intelligence, management apps and 3D printing as new threats to shop-floor workers as well as to white-collar staff.
Hicks –who has known former Indiana governor Mike Pence, Trump's incoming vice president, for years –dismissed recent announcements by Ford, Indiana air-conditioning brand Carrier and others as “political theatre”.
“The apparent change of heart of these American companies is due to the hard math of expected tax cuts and regulatory changes (under the Trump administration),” he told AFP in a phone interview, noting that under company projections, robots rather than wages will account for the bulk of planned investment that is being redirected from Mexico to the US.
Vows to renegotiate trade pacts, or declare China a currency cheat, played well for Trump on the campaign trail but trends such as automation have already rendered much low-skilled US labour obsolete.
The total output of US manufacturing rose more than 250 per cent from 1980 to 2015, but its workforce slumped by roughly 40 per cent in that time, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution in Washington.