By Chase Troxell
As witnessed with this issue of the Pulse, University of Findlay’s enrollment is up, a trend many schools are seeing as more and more graduating seniors make the choice to take their education to a higher level. For me and the rest of my graduating high school class, 2009, the same school year that witnessed some major economic bailouts and murmurs of the “Great Recession,” the choice was simple: manual labor was out, education was in.
To understand the full scope of my graduating situation, a little background is needed. I graduated in a city bigger than Findlay, but too small to be considered big: Elkhart, Indiana. While it has been a few years now, those with long memories will know that Elkhart was one of the two cities that Barack Obama visited in the winter of 2009 to talk about his big stimulus package. The other one was in Florida, and it was supposedly the worst hit in terms of the housing market. Elkhart, as some know, is the RV capital of the nation—thus, in 2009, it had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, a bleak note to graduate on.
The RV industry was hit hard because RV’s are secondary even to automobiles, another struggling industry. If people could not buy cars, they certainly couldn’t afford the luxury of owning an RV. The heart and soul of the RV industry are the factory workers who come in day after day, building them in teams, one after the next. The pay is great, better than many educated positions, especially when overtime rate is applied. When that goes away, desperation sets.
The full impact of this hit me when I was stocking shelves at a little grocery store local to Indiana and Michigan. I was asked to pick up two overnight shifts, which paid a dollar more than normal rate. When it didn’t work with my schedule, I asked to move back to day shift. The night manager put a job posting to get those two nights filled. When I asked how it was going, he said he had more applicants than he knew what to do with. Those people that had been laid off, were desperate enough to try and take a night shift stocking position, a job that didn’t scratch the surface of what they were used to earning. In a creditor/debtor economy, when the debtors go from making 40$ thousand to 15$ thousand, bills don’t get paid and the economy stops ticking.
The fact is we are in a time of great shifting. While aggressive legislation has been able to restore some of these manual labor positions, more and more are going out the door and staying. Even Obama’s stimulus package had clauses dedicated to alternate energy and healthcare. When he was attacked for having so much of what was framed as pork, or wasted spending, he argued as many economists have, the jobs are shifting. Alternative energy, engineering and the digital age either have or are going to make things faster and more efficient, which is great for business operations, but poor for the everyman worker.
Take my distribution position at Home Depot as a prime example. Home Depot is newer to distribution, so what we can see with their centers is a rapid evolution in a matter of a few years. They have gone from opening manually operated facilities, where workers push boxers along a conveyor built to a mechanized conveyor system that sorts the product by store with no workers to help the process along in a matter of an instant. While the company on a whole is expanding its distribution operations, within each center is a slow push toward efficiency that may one day make Home Depot’s distribution centers so efficient that it needs fewer and fewer people to run it. Other companies have gone so far as to begin experimenting with crane operations, eliminating the need to even have a worker pull the boxes off and possibly put them on the line.
Just as the tractor eliminated the need to have many workers ploughing a field, technology continually is eliminating the need to have workers in many other industries. While this is a trend that can be traced back to the depression and beyond, the rapid growth in computer technology has astronomically boosted the extinction of many positions once held. Consider the Amazon drones or Google’s recent success in passing legislation in California to make driverless cars legal. What sort of implications could this have on the transportation industry?
Not to sound like a doomsday theorist, with every deleted position, there is a new and exciting field opening every day: the old idea that when machines replace workers, workers will fix the machines when they break down. However, while this ratio of manual labor jobs disappearing to educated jobs reappearing may be balanced, it will be important for all of us to keep our eye out for when it goes out of balance. This will be the time to panic.
Enrollment is up because we are preparing for the future of labor. Manual labor positions are becoming less and less the dominate force in employment, while educated and professional positions are becoming the norm.