I have long wondered why automation has not come to the apparel industry. It has. Computer-guided machines, robots, can now do what it took vast rooms of people toiling at sewing machines or people working long hours at home to do. And it is threatening to destroy the livelihood of people in places such as Bangladesh where we get most of our clothing.
The good news is that people will no longer have to toil in sweatshops or dangerous factories known for their unsafe conditions. The bad news is that they will be out of work.
The good news is that this could bring a lot of apparel making back to the United States. The bad news is that it won’t bring so many jobs because of the automation.
I used to think what a shame that we have the raw materials here in the United States in abundance, most notably cotton, and yet we have to send it half way around the world to get it made into clothing (or to Central America).
It was my thinking that if we imposed high enough import duties on incoming clothing we could then create conditions that would bring back our own apparel industry. With the automation eliminating jobs overseas that might not be necessary but there won’t be the potential for near as many jobs as there might have been in the past.
And something occurs to me, free-market economics is dealing or may deal with the flood of imports. Don’t need high import duties. Labor costs rose in other parts of the world so they went to automation and that in turn could make our own industry more competitive. Mark one up for free trade.
Also, we shouldn’t miss the sweatshops and the unsafe factories — unsafe because the owners did not want to spend the money to make them safe and because they wanted to keep the workers inside in prison-like conditions working long hours.
We had the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 where workers could not escape because the doors were locked, and in more recent years there have been such terrible incidents in places such as Bangladesh.
And I wanted to work this anecdote in even though it really serves little purpose here: a couple of decades ago I was in between jobs as they say when I took a temporary job as a messenger. I was in Sacramento. I was trying to find a certain address downtown. I came up to this building that had large plate glass windows but they were all soaped up so you could not see inside. I opened the door and walked in. What I saw was row upon row of women working at sewing machines. What came next was a man who gently grabbed me by the arm and ushered me out of there. So I guess apparel sweatshops have continued to exist here too (and I have no idea what the real working conditions were there but it seems they wanted to hide them.)
Well, anyway, automation is coming or is here in virtually every facet of work — artificial intelligence even threatens the livelihood of office workers and intellectual pursuits. And this is not just theoretical.
I should be fully retired instead of partially retired by now and not worrying about it, but in my own line of work, truck driving (something I fell into in my second half of life), the future is self-driving trucks. They are already here and have been tested or used in a limited way. No one seems to know exactly how the transition will play out. I am in the over-the-road or long-haul sector of trucking. I have read that the first step will be the changeover to self-driving cars. Even though there does not seem to be a big demand for that currently somehow it is moving that way even so. I think the newer generations of people are not as enamored with personal automobiles as most of us have been in the past — and this may be for a variety of reasons I won’t attempt to speculate on now other than to mention economics. To put it bluntly: cars are just to damn expensive now.
What I’m thinking is that the generations now going into the work force or who will enter in the years ahead need to avail themselves of a lot of education — albeit not necessarily the conventional four-years college type — for some yes, for some no. What they need is to develop their abilities and mind to a whole array of things in order to take advantage of the work that will be available.
I’ll just take my own work as an example. The nature of trucking or the transportation of goods will change. But I think people will still be involved in the logistical pursuits, they will just need different skills. And those skills may well require more formal and a more diverse education than in the past. And that goes for just about everything.
And then again maybe a meteor or nuclear bombs will wipe out much of our population and all of our scientific knowledge with it and those left will have to go back to the future.
Would they be better off? I wonder.
Maybe it is all a cycle.
Are we at the end of the cycle?