We live in a time of economic transformation. Tomorrow’s history books will dedicate chapters to the technological revolution of today alongside the chapters on the industrial revolution.
Both eras unleashed an array of new technologies onto the American and world economic landscape, creating new jobs while displacing old. Both made entrepreneurs, industrialists and technologists incredibly wealthy.
There is a profound difference, however, in these comparable shifts of the economic tectonic plates. The industrial revolution of the mid-to-late 19th century created opportunities for workers with a strong back, no specific skills and a work ethic. Those jobs were hard, repetitive, dangerous, loud and – for a long time – low paying.
Still, Americans left farms and Europeans left their homelands to migrate to America’s cities and industrial towns seeking a way up and a better life. The new technology, first driven by steam then by electricity and the combustion engine, created opportunity for the unskilled and often uneducated. They didn’t get rich but they got employed.
Ultimately, worker uprisings, unionization and public reaction to horrific accidents led to workplace and health standards, an eight-hour workday, health benefits, environmental regulations and a pathway to the middle class.
The machinery needed workers to run it. Today’s technological revolution has created technology and robotics in large part that has displaced the unskilled worker. The technology does that job.
Herein lies the core difference. The industrial revolution created jobs and opportunities for the unskilled, uneducated worker. The technological revolution of this century has taken those jobs away.
It’s a seismic shift that will have an even more profound effect for tomorrow’s America than the last revolution had for 20th century America.
This is why there is so much confusion about the economic recovery. Corporate bottom lines are getting bigger but jobs aren’t part of it. In many cases, the replacement of jobs with technology is the reason the companies are healthier.
Earnings are up. The stock market is growing. Jobs for the unskilled and relatively uneducated are down and they aren’t coming back up.
How well the economy is doing depends upon where you sit. This is the core reason driving America’s burgeoning discussion on income inequality.
The issue is real. It’s not going away anytime soon. It’s no one’s fault. And there’s no short-term fix.
So, what’s the answer? The obvious one is education and skill development – and not just more bachelor of arts degrees in the social sciences but vocational and technological skills needed in this new economy.
Individuals ultimately are responsible but companies and communities and school districts need to emphasize and support skills development to fit the needs of today’s workplace, not yesterday’s.
Communities also need to realize that not everyone is going to be a computer chip developer and not every job is going to be the proverbial “good job.” There always will be people who cannot or will not educate themselves as much as everyone else, but they still need jobs.
We are fortunate in the Lehigh Valley for our transportation and warehouse sector. It employs 18,000 people in our region. More than 5,000 jobs have been added just since 2010, a 38 percent increase.
Most of those jobs go to people without college degrees. The jobs require more and more skills – many of which can be learned on the job, just like the steelworkers and textile workers of yesterday.
Average salaries are $30,840 in the Lehigh Valley. No one is getting rich, but they are getting employed.
Many are quick to oppose their development. I’m sure in the 1860s there were some who lamented the loss of Moravian farmlands along the Lehigh River in South Bethlehem when the first buildings of the Bethlehem Iron Works appeared.