While the pundits and politicians spent the last four years arguing that unemployment would be lower with more or less stimulus spending or by returning to supply-side, trickle-down economics something happened: the economy transformed.
We are living through an historic time. Historians will look back at this period as significantly as they do the Industrial Revolution or the post-World War II manufacturing boom. This is a game changing period: the information and technological age, doubled down.
In my book of history, this new era of economic history began on June 29, 2007 when the iPhone was released.
While the chattering classes spent the last four years fixated on decimal point changes in unemployment rate reports, which are months old and whose fluctuations are often within a margin of error, they rarely stated the obvious. The economy has changed.
Many of the jobs lost aren’t coming back. They are not part of an economic cycle or a market climb or fall. The policies of the president, the congress or the Federal Reserve aren’t going to change it.
When Henry Ford started mass manufacturing automobiles, there were no more jobs to put shoes on horses or build carriages. Those jobs never came back. It wasn’t an economic cycle or a downturn. It was a stop point.
Soon there will be no more toll takers. It’s hard to believe any still exist with E-Z Pass. Think how many people used to work in banking just processing checks. Those jobs aren’t coming back.
At a recent symposium on economic competitiveness at Lehigh University, Vincent Forlenza, CEO of Becton, Dickinson Co., said one of his medical needle manufacturing plants in Nebraska employs the same number of employees as it did in 1987 but has five times the output, higher quality and lower costs. That was 25 years ago. Five times the production, higher quality, lower costs and the same number of jobs. That came from technology. Those jobs aren’t coming back.
Workers have to adapt. Our educational systems have to adapt. Innovation has created the need for a new workforce. No one is guaranteed a job just because they go to college.
During the presidential debates, Mitt Romney ruminated about 50 percent of recent college graduates being either unemployed or underemployed, working at a job beneath their education level.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that between 2007 and 2010 the number of Americans with master’s degrees on food stamps or other public aid went from 102,000 to more than 290,00. Ph.D.’s on assistance went from 10,000 to nearly 34,000.
Just because you went to college or graduate school and got a degree in sociology or English literature doesn’t mean the economy needs your skills.
Education and lifelong learning is essential to develop better human beings but employers seek workers with the skills they need.
Nearly 600,000 jobs in the U.S. – many in the manufacturing sector – are unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the right skills. Some of our largest employers in the Lehigh Valley like PPL and Air Products are hiring but struggling to find trained workers.
PPL hired 500 people last year. Air Products CEO John McGlade – a graduate of the Bethlehem Vo-Tech school – is a leader in the U.S. business community in challenging students to develop the skills needed in today’s marketplace, and for schools and parents to remove the stigma from vocational-technical training.
Community colleges and vocational-technical schools and workforce investment boards are more important than ever. A 21-year-old today will land a job quicker and make more money with a certificate in welding than a bachelor’s in sociology.
Our economic model can’t be built on yesterday. We no longer live in cycles of years. It’s more like cycles of months or weeks.
And to be successful at economic growth we need to ensure we are providing a prepared workforce.
Unfortunately, just having a strong back and a good work ethic – or a college degree – is not enough anymore. The age of information and technology is creating a different paradigm for jobs.
We will forever need to retrain ourselves. And, we will serve our kids and business better the faster we put the rhetoric behind us and work on the reality of a transformed economy.