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On productivity and American jobs

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Steffen Schmidt, guest columnist

I see that Uber, the innovative car ride company, is working on a driverless car system for the future. I also see that millions of people are making an income by being Uber drivers. I guess they’re out of luck in the future.

That’s nothing new.

Our business schools basically teach efficiency and “productivity,” which consists largely of running a business with fewer employees. This has been very successful.

How many gas station attendants have filled your tank and checked your oil recently? Do the math. When gas stations went self serve millions of Americans lost their jobs.

Was there an elevator operator the last time you rode up and down? How many millions of jobs went out the window with automated elevators?

Once upon a time the “steno pool” employed millions of women taking notes at meetings (steno = stenographer) and transcribing the notes into memos, letters, and reports. Computers and software quickly exterminated the steno pool because now you don’t need to “retype” anything you can just make corrections and print it out. Productivity yes. But, millions no longer have a job.

My kids had summer jobs detasseling corn and “walking beans.” That’s all automated now. My friend’s kids delivered the daily newspaper. Need I say more?

I saw a story recently that robotic croupiers, the people in charge of gaming tables, will soon replace casino dealers.

Yes, millions of jobs have gone overseas because low wages are also what is taught in business schools as the formula for “profitability.” Heck, even universities have adopted that model and now often shift work from full-time positions with benefits to part-time instructors who come dirt cheap and can quickly be disposed of by not renewing their contracts.

But the cumulative consequences of all these changes are having a devastating impact on the economy.

Fewer employed means fewer consumers buying stuff and therefore driving economic growth.

It also means fewer people are starting families which has a negative trickle-down effect on home sales, numbers of kids in schools, car sales, and other economic forces.

Granted, there are new categories of jobs in technology and services. These often require advanced schooling. But only 40.4 percent of Americans have a college degree according to the Lumina Foundation.

Note that the jobs we have lost were jobs for largely unskilled and unschooled folks. Those workers earned a modest living, but more than that they earned self-respect and dignity from their work. No amount of deregulation will bring back gas station attendants, steno pools, detasseling, or elevator operators. Politicians who claim otherwise are either delusional or lying.

• Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University. Comments: steffenschmidt2005@gmail.com

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