Is Our Children Employable?

For that matter what are the job prospects for any of us? A soft economic recovery and an increasingly level (or "flat," to borrow Thomas Friedman's strange phrasing) global marketplace are rapidly reducing the options of American workers across a range of careers and vocations.  Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post asks "Will Your Job Survive?" Meyerson's alarm bells were tripped by a disturbing report from Princeton University economist Alan Blinder. I hate to go all "Lou Dobbs." But Blinder's prognostication about the job market of the not too distant future should send a chill down the spine of any American concerned about the future of the US economy.

In the new global order, Blinder writes, not just manufacturing jobs but a large number of service jobs will be performed in cheaper climes. Indeed, only hands-on or face-to-face services look safe. "Janitors and crane operators are probably immune to foreign competition," Blinder writes, "accountants and computer programmers are not."

There follow some back-of-the-envelope calculations as Blinder totes up the number of jobs in tradable and non-tradable sectors. Then comes his (necessarily imprecise) bottom line: "The total number of current U.S. service-sector jobs that will be susceptible to offshoring in the electronic future is two to three times the total number of current manufacturing jobs (which is about 14 million)." As Blinder believes that all those manufacturing jobs are offshorable, too, the grand total of American jobs that could be bound for Bangalore or Bangladesh is somewhere between 42 million and 56 million  . [emphasis mine] That doesn't mean all those jobs are going to be exported. It does mean that the Americans performing them will be in competition with people who will do the same work for a whole lot less.


Meet the competition, or at least some of it.

It's nearly five p.m. and factory workers at one of Vietnam's largest industrial parks flood into the streets of Ho Chi Minh City's sprawling outskirts. Some of the workers are clocking out, others signing in. Those who are done for the day cross the busy highway to buy groceries from vendors camped along the dusty street. Among them are employees of Danu Vina Corporation, who earn less than $2 for a hard day [emphasis mine] making stuffed animals that will be sold in the U.S. by Hallmark, Disney, and Starbucks.

The news from Corpwatch is that the Vietnamese are balking -- and striking -- over the low wages and poor working conditions. But the bigger news is the lengths to which US corporations will go to keep labor costs at a bare minimum and their determination to go where they must throughout the third world to find a work force poor and powerless enough to keep their stockholders happy.

But to remain attractive to foreign investment, government officials argue, Vietnam must provide the kind of cheap, docile labor force that foreign investors demand. But on paper, at least, Vietnam's workers are supported by has some of the strongest labor laws in the world. Under the Communist system, workers in every factory are required to be represented by the official government union within a few months of opening.

"When foreign investors enter Vietnam, they must follow the country's labor rules," says security manager Long Nguyen. ''If they don't, the Vietnamese government has the responsibility to enforce the law or expel the company. The government has to protect the worker. The unions that represent workers in factories of foreign and joint-stock companies are weak. They don't have the strength to stand up to the management.

Since the influx of private companies started a few years ago, however, enforcement of policy has been lax. According to the International Labor Organization, only 10 percent of workers in the export sector are represented by a trade union and observers can't remember a single case when a company has been forced out for breaking the law. So, most expect continued low wages and increasing numbers of wildcat strikes.

I have to admire the moxie of the Vietnamese labor force, but it's quite clear that the multinational corporations who employ them do not. If wages of $55 dollars a month spook these conglomerates, how can Americans compete?

More good news from Meyerson:

Also dying, if not yet also kaput, is the comforting notion that a good education is the best defense against the ravages of globalization -- or, as Bill Clinton famously put it: What you earn is the result of what you learn. A study last year by economists J. Bradford Jensen of the Institute for International Economics and Lori Kletzer of the University of California at Santa Cruz demonstrates that it's the more highly skilled service-sector workers who are likely to have tradable jobs. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of jobs in the United States that require a college degree will rise by a measly one percentage point -- from 26.9 percent in 2002 to 27.9 percent in 2012 -- during this decade.

So perhaps it doesn't really matter that our children isn't learning. And they isn't.

Apparently, a lot of our schools are turning out adults so undereducated it just isn't cost effective to train them. Just last year Toyota withdrew plans to open a factory in the US because the workforce was too illiterate to employ. They've taken their business to Woodstock, Ontario. Explained Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association:

...Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Alabama due to an untrained - and often illiterate - workforce. In Alabama, trainers had to use "pictorials" to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment.

"The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario," Fedchun said.      

In addition to lower training costs, Canadian workers are also $4 to $5 cheaper to employ partly thanks to the taxpayer-funded health-care system in Canada, said federal Industry Minister David Emmerson.

           

So failing schools and an inefficient health care system are costing Americans jobs. When do the benefits of unrestrained "free markets" kick in? The tide appears to be rising, yet so many boats are sinking.

In the pages of the Washington Post, George Will bemoans a Florida Supreme Court decision against vouchers for private schools; a decision that could deny 733 children the financial assistance to get out of their failing schools. Where, I wonder, is his sympathy for the thousands of other children in those same failing schools, who weren't exceptional enough to qualify for the OSP voucher program? Such is the irony of our American "meritocracy." The more "level" (or "flat") we insist we're making the playing field, the greater the ensuing inequity; and the more Americans are faced with a future of diminishing returns.

Crossposted from The Blogging Curmudgeon.

Tags: Corporate Issues, Education, Free Market Fundamentalism, George Will, Labor, outsourcing, Thomas Friedman (all tags)

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