The Hard Truths About Today’s Labor Market

Jerry Haar

Unemployed coal miners want their jobs back. So do manufacturing plant workers whose employment has been outsourced to lower-wage countries. Add to those young people, including scores of college graduates, whose job prospects are grim, forcing them into underemployment and requiring them to live at home rather than on their own.

This litany of complaints (and outrage) has fueled, in part, the resurgence of populism not only in the United States but in Europe, as well. And while these grievances are understandable, it is time for real truths–not alternative truths–about labor markets. These are:

Dying industries cannot be resuscitated. Typewriters, pay phones, folding maps, beepers, Kodak film, and cassette players are obsolete, their product life cycles have run their course and their replacements/substitutes superior in every way. Coalmining employed nearly 130,000 workers when Obama was elected president. By 2015 that figure had dropped to 98,000. Competition from cheap, shale gas; fracking; renewables; and technology was and will continue to be the reasons for the continual fall. Other declining industries include knitting and apparel, hardware manufacturing, communications, equipment, and glass manufacturing. Here, too, technology will boost productivity while decreasing labor input.

Most offshored jobs will not be re-shored. Although some will be coming back, the vast majority will not. Outsourcing, whether transferred in-company to an outside supplier, from a union state to a right- to-work state, or to a foreign country like China or Mexico is intended to reduce costs to allow a company to sell to consumers at a lower price. The negative impact on a firm’s employees will be the same. Reducing costs allow the company to offer consumers a lower price. When Delta moved 1,000 jobs to India it reduced costs by $25 million and used the money saved to fund 1,200 new reservations and sales positions in the U.S. The intent of market capitalism is to serve the consumer, not the producer’s employees.

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