The Big(ger) Picture

If you’re a data junkie like me, then you drool over sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  These and similar sites allow you to find and download data about virtually every aspect of American society.  Data from these sites is used to develop government policy, so it’s in the best interest of the government that the data be as accurate as possible:  inaccurate or falsified data will eventually be found, most likely by catastrophic policy failures.

In any case, here’s a Shocking Statistic ™:  The American auto industry lost about 400,000 jobs between 2000 and 2015.  You can find similar numbers for other types of manufacturing, and for coal, and it’s part of the reason why a Certain Person became President:  he promised to bring those jobs back.

But the numbers suggest this is nothing more than another empty promise.

Tote on over to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.  Here you’ll find that in the year 2000, American car companies produced about 12 million vehicles, while in 2015, American car companies produced about…12 million vehicles.  In other words, American car manufacturers are producing as many cars as they did 15 years ago, with significantly fewer workers.

There are lots of reasons for this.  Some of the decline can be attributed to the fact that “American” cars are often built from parts made in other countries, so the jobs making these parts have disappeared (those of my political generation will recognize the phrase “giant sucking sound“…)  However, a large part of the decline comes from the fact that newer factories, built after the (second) collapse of the American auto industry in 2008, are more automated.

Thus if you look at the category “Motor Vehicles Manufacturing,” as opposed to “Motor Vehicle Parts Manufacturing” or “Motor Vehicle Bodies and Trailers Manufacturing,” we see that in 2000, about 292,000 people were employed actually putting cars together, while in 2015, that number had dropped to 194,000:  that’s 98,000 jobs lost.  But again, that smaller workforce produced about the same total number of cars.

We see similar trends in other industries.  Here’s the number of coal miners, between 1985 and 2015:


That’s more than 100,000 jobs lost in 30 years.  

But at the same time, here’s coal production:


Coal production hasn’t changed significantly; what’s changed is that a coal  miner in 2015 produces three times as much coal as his father did in 1985.

The thing to remember is this:  Companies don’t want more jobs.  Every worker is someone they have to pay, which cuts into their profitability.  This isn’t a value judgment:  it’s a statement of fact.  Technology allows companies to produce more product with fewer works (this is measured by worker productivity).

So the situation looks dire:  those 400,000 no-longer-employed autoworkers will likely never again work in the auto industry.  Traditionally, we let the unemployed suffer,


and if they dared to do anything more than suffer in silence, we’d sic law enforcement and the military on them.


But there’s a better way:  retraining for new industries.  I’ll talk more about this in a later post.  Or if you can’t wait, here’s a short video on the subject)