WASHINGTON – We can argue that in America may be about half the work force is doing alright because it is positively connected to the fast-moving global economy. For them globalization is good. Most of them are “knowledge workers”. They design the sophisticated technologies which power global or globally connected businesses, or at least are familiar with them and know how to work productively with them.
Some do well, many do not
If they are in high-tech, renewable energy, complex global logistics, medical science and diagnostics, digital design, supply chains creation, management and sustainability these American workers are probably doing alright.
However, most of the others –those who perform low value, repetitive tasks or who are engaged in manual labor — are or will soon be at the bottom of the skills pyramid. Unfortunately this means that their jobs are not and cannot become stepping stones to future employment in more challenging and more rewarding sectors. In many cases, the jobs that involve repetitive tasks will probably be outsourced, or will disappear altogether, as victims of the relentless automation wave.
Lack of skills, lack of opportunity
If you belong to the bottom half of the “old economy”, your current position is bad and likely to get worse. If you do not have and cannot acquire the skills that give you dexterity with machines that work with numbers, (most likely because you had a poor education and therefore you do not know how to work with these systems), you have no career future. You are or will soon be pushed down into dead end manual labor jobs like janitor, landscape worker, bus boy, or nursing home attendant.
The unlucky former manufacturing workers who lost their jobs due to globalization and automation are equally in bad shape. If they cannot be retrained so that they could aspire to the more sophisticated positions in new high-tech manufacturing or services, in most cases they will end up in one of those dead end, low paying occupations.
Getting the jobs back
Of course, when then candidate Donald Trump came along in 2016 arguing that the only reasons these fine factory workers lost their jobs is the greed of their corporate employers seeking easy profits by exporting jobs overseas, along with unfair trade competition from China, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Mexico and everybody else, these displaced workers were eager to listen. And they were willing to believe that, indeed, all it takes to restore their old manufacturing jobs, (with all the perks and benefits), is a new President who really wants to help the little guy by turning things around in Washington.
Yes, they believed that a President can reverse the negative impact of globalization. Yes, he can force U.S. companies to stay at home and hire more American workers. Yes, he can re-negotiate unfair trade deals, so that the avalanche of cheap imports will stop, while American companies will find new markets abroad.
A nice dream
This is unfortunately only a nice dream. No, no President, however well-intentioned, can stop, let alone reverse, globalization. Yes, he can strong arm corporations in order to slow down or stop the outsourcing process. But this is no long term solution.
In the end, American companies will succeed only if they can be and stay competitive. Forcing them to keep expensive or money-losing operations in America, so that workers can collect a pay check, while their nimble foreign competitors conquer markets leads only to eventual economic decline.
The way out
So, what is the proper way of addressing this crisis brought about by the competition of cheap labor (mostly from Asia) and the relentless march of automation?
The only way is for the unskilled to become skilled.
Those who are not employable today because they lack the knowledge and the basic understanding of how the high-tech knowledge economy works need to get those skills. And fast. Those who do not, are left behind. For them there is no upward mobility, no career ladder.
The old adage that “hard work” is the key ingredient to success in America is no longer valid. Yes, diligence and discipline still matter. But only when accompanied by the sophisticated knowledge that allows mastery of complex systems.
How is France doing?
Well, if this is the rather gloomy picture for millions of Americans who may have missed the bus leading to the global economy, what about elsewhere? What about France, for instance?
France recently embarked in a an incredibly ambitious political experiment. The French voters ditched the established political parties, of the left and the right, and elected President the young and completely untested Emmanuel Macron. And the reason is that this investment banker turned politician, promised nothing less than economic renaissance.
While he phrased his campaign slogans differently, he promised the same end results promised by candidate and now President Donald Trump: a complete bottom-up economic transformation.
Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron claims that his policies will kick-start France into high gear. This rather old and unimaginative country will become a “Start-Up Nation”. As a result of fresh pro-growth policies, there will be a fresh crop of entrepreneurs and innovators.
Reform labor laws
Well, in principle this is possible. However, how do you make this happen? One good place to start is by reforming the antiquated French labor market. France is still prisoner of the old, pro-union leftist agenda which is all about the protection of workers rights. Nothing wrong with that, in principle.
The problem is however that by focusing on the protection of those who are employed, French labor laws make it much harder for employers to hire new workers. Indeed, when a new worker is hired, given all the protections he/she is entitled to, it becomes almost impossible or at least extremely costly to dismiss him/her when business is down.
In other words, by offering maximum protection to employed workers, French labor laws made sure that fewer workers would be hired, even in good times. In addition, the perks and benefits going by law to employees made French labor costs too high, this way making French companies less competitive in the global market place.
Bite the bullet
It seems that President Macron is willing to bite this bullet. His government wants to tackle labor laws reform.
But here is the political and psychological problem. Even if well designed and skillfully implemented, labor law reforms will threaten the job security of existing workers before they will be able to broaden the labor market, therefore offering new opportunities to those who cannot get into it today. Which is to say that there will be pain first (guaranteed), and (possible, hoped for) gains later.
Can Macron convince France?
Can President Macron convince the French people that he can manage this complicated process well? Can he convince workers who may lose their jobs now, on account of more flexible labor laws, that in the future, given greater overall flexibility, more appealing jobs will sprout across the nation, this way creating brighter prospects for millions of old and new workers? This is going to be a tough sale.
In the end, it is obvious that a brittle French jobs market will not help advance Macron’s vision of France as a “Start-Up Nation”. Economic renaissance is very appealing until voters realize that change may entail threats to their current security. I am a bit pessimistic about the depth of France’s newly discovered enthusiasm for enterprise and innovation, once the French realize that this hoped for transformation is not pain free.
I doubt that Macron will have the ability to convince most of the country that a more fluid society with fewer protections is also a more flexible society that creates more opportunities. No doubt most French would like to see more competitive companies and more jobs created. But those who are employed now do not want to lose whatever job security they have.
As noted above, even here in America, until not too long ago the quintessential “Start-Up Nation”, in many sectors of our society and economy we are failing to live up to the old and time-tested “can do” spirit of flexibility and quick adaptation to new circumstances.
We failed to build the education, vocational training and retraining structures that would have allowed millions of workers to have a relatively smooth transition from old-fashioned, large scale manufacturing to a new, complex and more demanding knowledge economy.
Can an even more ossified France do a better job? Can a young, optimistic President Macron inject a new vigor into a declining economy?
Time will tell.