China. The manufacturing behemoth that we love to hate. Hardly a debate goes by without it being mentioned. It’s the antagonist that’s stealing American jobs; it’s the root of our economic woes. But can we really blame China? It’s a convenient scapegoat, but China isn’t the problem. We are.
There’s no doubt that China has its problems. From currency manipulation to data manipulation to human rights abuses, China will never be the leader of the free world. And they will suffer the consequences because of it. China is already starting to feel the effects of the ill-conceived one-child policy; the ramifications of which will continue to be felt for decades.
And it’s true, on a micro level, American communities have been on the losing end of trade with China. It’s estimated that one-fifth of the manufacturing jobs lost, 1.5 million, have been lost as a direct result. From 1990 to 2007, the manufacturing communities most vulnerable to Chinese competition were hit the hardest resulting in persistent unemployment, lower wages, and dependency on safety nets such as welfare, disability and food stamps. Low-skilled workers that can’t afford to move get stuck with limited to no alternatives.
At a White House dinner, President Obama asked Steve Jobs:
What would it take to make iPhones in the United States?
Those jobs aren’t coming back
But, there’s a reason for that and it extends beyond the cost of labor.Chinese factories operate at a speed and flexibility that is unmatched. For iPhone manufacturing, it was a no-brainer. Foxconn City employs 230,000 workers that work 6 days a week up to 12 hours per day and live on site. If they need to ramp up to scale or meet a deadline, they can easily hire 3,000 people overnight. Apple needed 8,700 industrial engineers. In the U.S. it would have taken 9 months to fill those positions. In China? 15 days.
On top of having a readily available and appropriately skilled workforce, China has masterfully built manufacturing clusters that greatly shorten the supply chain. They aren’t simply assembling products, they’re also providing the gaskets, screws, etc. necessary to do it. This cuts costs significantly to have complimentary parts built down the street.
Trade is complicated, especially with poor countries. The poor in China have little to lose, and there are billions of them. Many have no choice but to work long hours 6 days a week in the factory. We simply can’t compete with that.But should we want to? I like my weekends — and I’m sure you do too.
The question shouldn’t be:
How do we get the jobs back?
The question should be:
How do we create new and better jobs?
This is where we’ve failed.
Mid-wage jobs have been disappearing, and this has disproportionately affected Americans without a college degree. Service jobs, traditionally low-wage and minimum wage jobs, are all that are left . Jobs that used to be reserved for teenagers transitioning into adulthood are now permanent jobs — but they hardly provide livable wage. As a result, too many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save for the future. The American dream is fading for many.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As China develops economically and wages increase, companies have been moving some manufacturing back. That doesn’t mean all of the jobs have come back. Robots have been replacing workers as well. But there are some jobs Apple would be willing to bring back: skilled manufacturing engineers.Engineers that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. We haven’t trained them.
What else do we need? Developers. Programmers. Software architects.Code.org estimates that by 2020 we’ll have 1,000,000 more jobs than students. We’re not training enough of them.
Instead of preparing our workforce for that change, we’ve ignored it. We’ve blamed others for our nearsightedness. We complain about China. We complain about the number of immigrants. Yet, we are not actively working to solve these problems. We have become the problem.
We need to be asking,
What are the jobs of today?
And more importantly,
What are the jobs of tomorrow?
We can’t rely on low-skilled work, we need to move people into mid-wage and high-wage work in a debt-free and cost-effective way. There are skills that can be learned in a short period of time that don’t require 4 years or more of higher education. Skills that American companies desperately need now, and will need in the future.
Take coding bootcamps as an example. This successful model is now being applied to other areas of tech such as graphic design, user experience, data science, and project management.
It’s because of this success that we’re launching DevTech Academy: a workforce development program that’s a simple, debt-free, cost-effective alternative to college. Geared towards youth that can’t afford to go to college, it’s a 1 year program instead of a 4 year program that combines a 6-month bootcamp with a 6-month paid apprenticeship. The only cost comes from not working the first 6 months. We’re starting with web development but we will move into other areas as we scale. Could we saturate the market with entry-level programmers? Maybe. But these programmers will also create new companies. We can grow the workforce as the tech industry grows.
This is a model that is easily replicated, and not just in tech. We can move into engineering and biotech. Textile production and clothing manufacturing. What about 3D printing? What type of skills will VR/AR need?
The jobs are there. The jobs will be there. Good jobs that can provide good wages and bring back the middle-class. We need a workforce that is ready for them.
The fact that U.S. companies can’t find appropriately skilled workers, is our problem, not China’s.
The fact that the U.S. is losing its middle-class, is our problem, not China’s.
We need to start talking to companies about not only the type of workers they need now, but the type of workers they think they’ll need in the future. And, most importantly, we need to start listening. We need to start planning. We need to build an infrastructure and a pipeline to support a long-term vision.
We should be investing in this type of alternative skills-based education. If we don’t, we’ll end up paying for it anyways by supporting the under and unemployed through welfare, disability, and social programs. Our people should not have to rely on the safety net to survive. Americans deserve better opportunities than that.
We don’t have to work against globalization, we can work with it. Instead of continuing to complain and blame outside forces like China and immigration, let’s focus our attention on fixing these problems at home. The future of the American worker depends on it; the future of the American economy depends on it.
Note: This was originally published on LinkedIn/Medium on March 29, 2016.