FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

De-Skilling America’s Labor Force

If there were any lingering doubts about Corporate America’s contempt for working men and women, the on-going attempt to replace people with robots should put those doubts to rest. Clearly, a company that prefers a “mechanical man” to a functioning human being is trying to tell us something.

A recent announcement by Big Three automakers that they plan to invest a billion dollars over the next decade in the development of robotics reminded me of a remark made by an HR representative of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, some years ago.

Off-handedly, he suggested that we might be surprised at what kind of workforce would, hypothetically, “scare” a management team. For example, it wouldn’t be a lazy, belligerent or even militantly pro-union workforce. Those types, he assured us, could be “fixed” (his term). No, the scariest workforce would be a conspicuously talented one.

Why? Because talent is expensive. Talent is leverage. And while there is obviously a profound upside to having valuable workers, there is, paradoxically, a built-in downside: Management is now dependent upon a variable it can’t control.

Typically, people with “careers” are interested in advancement, recognition, self-realization, etc. Ambition is recognized as a virtue and is encouraged. Conversely, people with “jobs” tend to focus on wages and benefits. But because wages and benefits constitute overhead, ambition among the “gravy-and-french fry crowd” (witty management-speak) is not only discouraged, it often needs to be “fixed.”

Accordingly, management has embraced a strategy called “de-skilling,” the systematic dumbing-down of jobs into easily mastered tasks. De-skilling is to virtuosity what Agent Orange is to foliage. While its primary goal is to improve efficiency through standardization, it’s also a means of “neutralizing” a workforce.

We see a glimpse of it in the fast-food industry. Employees now press buttons with pictures of menu items. No arithmetic to mess with, no management worries about having enough cross-trained employees to go around. The job becomes, literally, as easy as A-B-C.

Warehousing is a better example. Before computerization, shipping checkers (the forklift drivers who load trucks) needed to know how to “cube out” a load. It was an art. They had to visualize the “cube,” calculate its volume, number of cases, and number of stacks-to fill an 18-wheeler. It isn’t rocket science, but it requires logic and finesse.

Today, the size and shape of every container in the warehouse-along with the interior dimensions of every trailer and boxcar in the yard-are logged into a computer. Everything is bar-coded. Monitors mounted on forklifts tell checkers where to go, what to scan, how much to grab, where to take it, and how to stack it.

While accuracy has improved significantly, productivity has not. Forcing checkers to paint by-the-numbers not only prevents any creative time-saving, it’s a morale buster, an insult, like hitching a thoroughbred race horse to a plow. Also, with everything tied to one computer, a minor glitch now shuts down the entire warehouse.

But management got what they wanted. Checker-training used to require two months; now it’s two weeks. Because experienced checkers were a relatively valuable commodity, they could earn $60,000 annually. Today, they compete with drivers making $11 an hour.

Companies tell unions not to worry. They remind them that automation itself was once demonized, and that until workers saw the phenomenon in action and came to appreciate the advantages of mechanization, they feared it.

But automation arrived long before America’s manufacturing sector had been hollowed-out and picked-over; it arrived when good jobs were still plentiful, and workers had time to adjust to new technology.

De-skilling is different. It has the potential to erode what’s left of blue-collar dignity and leave in its wake a sub-class of drones. By stripping workers of their craft-effectively washing out their value on the open market-de-skilling has revealed itself as automation’s evil twin brother. And there’s no easy “fix” in sight.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Wim Laven
The Annual Whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail