Restore U.S. manufacturing? Robots just took 60K jobs at a factory in China

It's a common rallying cry on the campaign trail, a promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

"I'm going to bring jobs back, and I'll start bringing them back very fast," Donald Trump said.

Bernie Sanders has said he's tired of seeing corporations "creating jobs all over the world while they're laying off American workers," while Hillary Clinton unhesitatingly noted she has "always been committed to bringing back manufacturing."

Funny thing about that. It's estimated the U.S. has lost roughly 5.5 million manufacturing positions in the last 25 years, and CNN said one study pegged the loss of U.S. factory jobs, because of growing exports from China between 1991 and 2007, at roughly 1.5 million. But those jobs may not necessarily be there to bring back home.

The South China Morning Post just a few days ago reported that Foxconn Technology, a supplier for Apple and Samsung, has replaced as many as 60,000 workers with robots, and that's just in one of its factories.

"It has tasted success in reduction of labor costs," Xu Yulian, a government spokesperson for the Kunshan region in China's Jiangsu province, told the paper. "More companies are likely to follow suit."

In fact, according to the Post, a government survey in Kunshan found 600 major companies just in that area have similar plans.

Because of the labor costs thing.

It's like something out of "The Twilight Zone."

Even with the massive job cuts, the Foxconn factory in question still has 50,000 workers. The company, which helps make such devices as Apple's iPhone and iPad, Sony's PlayStation 4 and Samsung's Galaxy phones, continues to employ more than 1.2 million in China.

Foxconn issued a statement to media that it's "applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees."

Some workers, it said, will be trained for "higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control."

Someone has to oversee the robots, at least until the R&D people come up with a robot for that, too.

Factory jobs have been on the rise here since 2010, according to The New Yorker, and China has seen a decline in open manufacturing positions since 2012.

Many economists are skeptical that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, can accelerate what's already going on through changes to tariffs, trade pacts and such.

But just as critical, as fivethirtyeight.com reported, is what's happening as some U.S. companies have in fact shifted manufacturing back from China in response to rising labor costs, a need for shorter supply chains and other factors.

It turns out they too aren't employing anywhere near as many people as they might have a generation ago. They, too, are going with robots and heavy automation. That's welcome news for the robots in your household, but maybe not for human job applicants.

And, as anyone who has ever tried to navigate a call through a company that no longer employs operators knows all too well, it hardly stops there.

Ed Rensi, a former CEO of McDonald's USA, had a revelation about automation while attending the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago this week about the push to give fast-food workers a $15 hourly minimum wage.

"If you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry, it's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who's inefficient (and) making $15 an hour bagging french fries," Rensi told Fox Business Network.

McDonald's Corp. CEO Steve Easterbrook, speaking Thursday at the Oak Brook-based global kingpin's annual meeting, said he didn't see wage hikes and improved automation technology as necessarily spelling "job elimination."

But Easterbrook did paint a scenario that suggested the days of inefficient fry baggers may be numbered.

"Ultimately, we're in the service business … so frankly we will always have an important human element because that is what brings the service experience to life," Easterbrook told shareholders. "If we were able to automate certain non-value-added processes in a restaurant, we would do that because it's a smart thing to do.

"But then that gives us the opportunity to bring that manpower front-of-house," he said. "We can offer a better dining-area experience and service experience."

That said, Pizza Hut reportedly intends to used robots as cashiers at some of its restaurants later this year.

So who knows?

Maybe it starts with touch-screen menu kiosks or ordering with your phone and ends with R2-D2 dispensing your Pepsi, clearing tables and hailing a self-driving car to get you home.

Whether you find that thrilling or terrifying, the point is that Americans aren't just fighting other countries for jobs, people are fighting machines.

Rather than bringing back jobs, forward-looking politicians might do better to promise a five-nanometer chip in every pod.

Oh, the humanity.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
36°