Saturday, January 23, 2010


I periodically go visit factories. The last one I went to really reminded me that as an Engineer one of my main functions is putting people out of work. We were getting the sales pitch from a whole bunch of people about a new product, and most of it was based around how much quicker it was to install. We wouldn't install more if it was easier to install, we would simply hire less construction workers and do the same job as always.

This is the second most impressive accomplishment of Scientists and Engineers of the past century. The most
impressive is of course that we invented an absurd amount of new stuff that would previously be unimaginable. But besides that we also produce the same stuff with far less work. The following graph demonstrates this quite well:

Engineers keep tweaking manufacturing processes. This slow process has caused the often talked about decline in American manufacturing. It is not that we produce less. It is that we produce the same amount without needing nearly as many workers. So if you are a low skill factory worker, it feels like manufacturing is in decline; while an executive would get the opposite idea. We are making the same money without needing to pay so many people, that means more profit!

The next few years will see the economy finally facing this problem head on. Do we have enough work for all these low skill workers that used to go to manufacturing or construction but now can't? Do we have the ability to train them in professions that are in demand? I suspect we will figure out how to put these people to work, but it won't be easy.

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