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Lousy Factory Jobs, Automation, and Employment
January , 2017
by William P. Meyers

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Most people hated factory jobs, with good reason

In 1974 I decided to "take a year off," from college, though if the year had gone better I might have simply dropped out. The main driver for this decision was economic. I had worked 60 hours a week the prior summer, and then 20 hours a week during the school year, with a full academic load. Yet for the second year in a row I received the "you are behind on tuition, you will not be allowed to start classes in the fall of 1975 unless you have made full payment" letter. And that was despite having most of my tuition covered by scholarships.

Yikes. I totally exhausted. I had been exposed to Beatnik and Hippy philosophy. I could see the world after 14 years as a student. I could work during the summer to pay my debt, then work during my year off to have money for the following year.

Up to that time the main work I had done was lifeguarding at swimming pools, and related work like maintaining them. I had also operated a drill press for a home business my swim coach was running. I applied for many jobs around Providence, Rhode Island (this was when, if you didn't have friends to help, you found jobs in the classified columns of a printed newspaper).

I only received one job offer, at the Coro Jewelry plant. It was working for minimum wage, same as lifeguarding. Coro made costume jewelry, but that summer they had a special order, so they needed to hire an extra worker. Coro did not have an assembly line. They had a set of machines for shaping metal. You moved your work from machine to machine.

My first task was to cut a huge ribbon of copper into strips of a specified length. You pulled with one hand on the spool until the ribbon reached its mark, then stomped on a pedal, causing a about a ton of machinery to come down and cut the ribbon. There was no safety guard to keep the machine from coming down on a finger. I was not given safety gobbles. It was incredibly boring, yet I paid attention as best I could, not wanting to lose a finger. I did that for days before going onto the next step for the special order.

I learned a lot in the Coro factory. I was hired because no one else applied who had even worked a drill press (I would use one at Coro later in the process). Why do that kind of work for minimum wage when most minimum wage jobs were easier and more pleasant? I learned Coro was the last costume jewelry factory in Providence. All the others had already moved overseas to take advantage of even cheaper labor. I learned that the old ladies who had hands fast as lightning and talked to each other in Italian as they worked their presses were paid by the piece, which worked out to slightly more than minimum wage. And the small crew of heavy guys who worked the biggest presses only got $0.50 an hour more than I did. And the place was unionized.

Finally, I learned my special project was making 10,000 belt buckles for the Marine Corps. Pretty funny, since I was a draft dodger and since my father had been a Marine.

After about six weeks my girlfriend asked me to spend the weekend with her at her family's summer vacation home on Cape Cod. I called in sick on Monday to stay and extra day. Then I called to see if maybe some lifeguarding work was available, and it was. Goodby, Coro.

That fall I had another factory job. Again, the wage was minimum. The job was better because we were assembling print-shop machines. It was varied work, but I was antsy and quit to go see what San Francisco was like. Also, it turned out the machines were on order from the government of South Vietnam (which was about to collapse. See Vietnam War).

My friend Tom tried working in a show factory and hated it. My friend Steve worked a summer at an auto parts factory and hated it. My wife's father worked summers in a steel mill and hated it. I could go on and on. Most people who worked in factories were dying to get out.

Maybe not everyone hates factory work, but what I heard even from those lucky enough to have one of the high-paying (unionized) factory jobs was: it isn't that bad, I make decent money.

So here are some takeaways for use in the current political debate. First, not all factory jobs paid well, nor will they all pay well in the future. Late 1800's American factories were little better than Nazi concentration camps. People fought and died for unions and decent wages, decent meaning being able to feed your kids wages. Even after the triumph of American might in World War II, when every other nations factories had been destroyed, only a small percentage of factory workers got the kind of spectacular wages and benefits the propagandists are now trying to associate with factory work.

Most importantly, most people don't like doing factory jobs. Of course if varies by the character of the person and the specifics of the job. Factories have become less mind-numbingly boring because the more boring the task, the easier it has been to automate. If factory work is walking around with a clipboard, checking indicators to make sure the automation is doing its job, well most people can tolerate that. But I know very few people want to spend their lives cutting copper ribbon into lengths for minimum wage. And there were never very many supervisor jobs in factories.

I have no problem with automating away most factory jobs. What I don't like is companies trying to automate away service jobs. Humans should deal with humans. I hate automated telephone answering systems. I hate being told to go to a web site where service will suck. If we want full employment, we could just ban those.

Demanding better service, provided by humans, is the best way to create jobs.

The attack on trade agreements may have some legitimate points, but it is mainly a diversion. Jobs were draining away from Providence, Rhode Island long before NAFTA was passed. Factories were going to be built around the world after 1945, at first just to replace the bombed factories, no matter what U.S. workers and businessmen did. The more competition, the less the average profit margin, which is a good thing. But once profit margins go down, U.S. factories are good for neither workers or owners.

There are many better ways to direct government money to improve jobs (including pay rates) than by encouraging companies to build highly automated factories. More healthcare spending would make more sense. That is a job creator. As long as it isn't automated.

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