The Trump Administration’s Apprenticeship Strategy Leads to a Dead End

The idea that apprenticeship programs, especially for industries that hire people with skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM skills), is widely accepted and promoted, so the Trump proposal is not out of the mainstream of thinking about barriers to employment and wage growth.  However, expecting much of an impact on employment and wage growth from the Trump administration’s turn of attention to apprenticeship programs will only hand you disappointment.

Over the last several decades, American business and government support for workforce training has declined dramatically, as shown by declining funding levels.

At a time when employers are struggling to find the skilled workers they need to fill available jobs, funding to train workers has dropped dramatically. Since just 2010, federal education and training programs have been cut by more than $1 billion.

Federal funding webpage, National Skills Coalition.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

The incidence of training in the previous 12 months fell roughly 28 percent overall during the period between 2001 and 2009. The results show that the decline in employer-paid training was wide-spread, affecting most industries, occupations, and demographic groups.

Jeff Waddoups, Did Employers in the United States Back Away from Skills Training during the Early 2000s? Seminar Invitation, Center for Work, Organization, and Wellbeing, Griffith University.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

The Trump administration’s proposal does not restore former levels of funding, much less move America to a new level of support for apprenticeship programs.  The reason is in plain sight, but studiously “undiscovered” by political and business leaders: American businesses are no longer dependent on a skilled American workforce; dozens of high and middle affluence nations are training skilled workers who then seek work through globally organized recruiting institutions, and then either migrate across national boundaries to workplaces or work across national boundaries without physically moving.  In most cases, American businesses can offer these globally available skilled workers more of what they want than can businesses in most other nations, so American businesses generally get the workers they really need.

In addition to sourcing skilled workers from a rapidly growing global pool of skilled workers, American businesses are turning to a rapidly growing supply of robots that are becoming increasing skilled with each passing month and decreasingly costly to own.  Robots may not yet be able to take over all skill intensive activities of workers, but competent management teams can (and do) orchestrate teams of human workers and robots so as to hold human staffing steady or even reduce it while still increasing output.

These are the stubborn 21st century realities that no feasible set of U.S. policies can undo or overcome.  Despite the widely held belief to the contrary, we are actually living in a world economy weighed down by an oversupply of skilled labor.  Fortunately, this fact becomes more apparent with every passing day, but, unfortunately, for a very disturbing reason.  As skilled workers around the world are pushed out into the cold because of oversupply with no employment prospects that match the expectations they were told to have, more and more are turning their talents to cyber crime, to designing murderous weapons on an ad hoc basis, and to building terrorist organizations.

A Background Note

The use of apprenticeships and recognizing the value in them goes back thousands of years.  More relevantly, U.S. states have long recognized the value of apprenticeship programs and supported and promoted them through legislation; the federal government has done so since 1937.

Since time immemorial, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their crafts to youth.

History of Apprenticeship, Washington State Department of Industries.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

Since 1937, the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training has worked closely with employer and labor groups, vocational schools, state apprenticeship agencies, and others concerned with apprenticeship programs in U.S. industry. It has field representatives in the 50 States.

History of Apprenticeship, Washington State Department of Industries.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

The point, of course, is that there is nothing new and noteworthy in the Trump administration’s apprenticeship proposal.  They are just trotting out old ideas that seem new because they have been pushed aside long enough for many American’s to think they are seeing something new and untried.

The Global Policy Crisis Keeps Growing Because We’ve Never Seen This Kind of World Economic Crisis

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry. … One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. … Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. … The first is how nation-states fit into a globalized world economy.

Chrystia Freeland, The three questions of global importance, Reuters, June 21, 2012.

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In an era of globalization, there are no innocent bystanders. There are certainly no oases of prosperity in the face of yet another major shock in the global economy. America’s growth mirage is an important case in point.

Stephen S. Roach, The Great American Mirage, Project Syndicate,  June 27, 2012.

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The possible conclusions are stark. One possibility is that those investing in financial markets expect economic policy to be so dysfunctional that the global economy will remain more or less in its current depressed state for perhaps a decade, or more. The only other explanation is that even now, more than three years after the US financial crisis erupted, financial markets’ ability to price relative risks and returns sensibly has been broken at a deep level, leaving them incapable of doing their job …

J. Bradford DeLong, The Perils of Prophecy, Project Syndicate, June 27, 2012.

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If we are to thrive as a global community of almost 10 billion – the projected population by 2050 – these new models are not optional, they are an absolute necessity.

From the Introduction, Outlook on the Global Agenda 2012, World Economic Forum.

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As a world economic crisis developed in 2008 and lasted longer than most economists predicted, it became increasingly clear that beliefs about macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy needed to be thoroughly examined. … By the end of this fascinating conference, we knew that we had entered a brave new world and that the crisis is generating enough questions to fill our research agendas for years to come.

From the Preface: Olivier J. Blanchard, David Romer, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz, In the Wake of the Crisis: Leading Economists Reassess Economic Policy, MIT Press, 2012.

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We are living in very unusual times,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief executive of Pimco, the world’s largest bond manager. “History may not be as reliable a guide as it’s been in the past.”

Jeff Sommer, Flights to Safety Can’t Hide the Dangers, New York Times, May 12, 2012.

COMMENTS

A significant number of economists and policy experts have wondered whether this global economic crisis is different – for two reasons: very few experts saw such a severe crisis coming and, even after absorbing that surprise, very few expected the crisis to be so resistant to policy interventions and to persist for so long.

The crisis is different this time – because it is embedded in a confluence of historical developments that the world has never seen before.  It involves the following developments:

  • Global climate change is damaging agricultural, tourism, fishing, and other weather sensitive industries, forcing producers to invest in very costly efforts to move and/or modify productive activities
  • The scale and scope of global production is running up against absolute resource limits, substantially curtailing practices that once were common and allowed market based productive activities to increase at low cost:
    • discovering easy to extract oil, natural gas, and mineral  deposits
    • opening up frontiers (territories not organized under western models of political authority) to invading waves of farmers, miners, loggers, entrepreneurs, and investors
    • adapting to dwindling fish stocks by fishing farther from shore and deeper
    • finding and harvesting virgin forests
    • abandoning aging and polluted cities, rivers and lakes (increasingly costly to maintain) to build newer cities in regions where rivers and lakes are untarnished
  • The centuries long era of incorporating the world’s territories and peoples into the western system of nation-states and coercing and bribing the world’s peasants, tribal peoples, and unpaid family and community workers into labor and consumer markets has come to an end; this has all but eliminated one of the primary ways in which the growth of demand for goods and services generally kept pace with the growth of productive capacity
  • The global spread of advances in productive technology, which entails the substitution of machine energy for human energy and machine thinking for human thinking, is slowing the growth of demand for goods and services by reducing opportunities to gain income through work.

This confluence emerged in recent decades and has permanently damaged the capacity of the world economy to generate the large pulses of consumer demand that historically called forth the productive investment responses that produced pulses of demand for labor.  The pulses of demand for labor increased wages and moved families from the ranks of the poor into the ranks of the middle class.  Over the longer term, more wealth was also pumped into the hands of the people at the top, preparing those people to respond to the next pulse of consumer demand.

Today, there is no mechanism for generating that heartbeat of economic growth.  The confluence of forces has damaged both phases of the cycle.

On the demand side, the first response to the confluence was a massive increase in global debt levels.  Debt growth sustained the growth of demand.  However, debt growth had to come to an end.

Today, with global debt levels very high and with global corporations wielding enormous political power in the world economy, it is not politically feasible to generate a Keynesian pulse of global consumer demand (either by massively expanding global debt levels or by  redistributing a large amount of wealth from the affluent to the have-nots).  But, even if the world economy’s leaders did find a way to generate a large pulse of consumer demand, it would largely fail to restart world economic growth.

On the supply side, the productive investment responses to a large pulse of consumer demand can no longer produce the employment and income gains that they produced in the past.  The ratio of machine energy to human energy in the world economy is so high now that demand for labor would not increase sufficiently to drive up global wage levels to the degree that was the case in the past.  Moreover, and more importantly for the long run, increasing the production of goods and services in the context of a world of resource limits that are becoming more difficult to overcome will drive up consumer prices. Whatever wage gains are realized will be offset by a higher cost of living..

From time to time in the history of the capitalist world economy, its magic has faltered and then been restored. This time the magic will sporadically flicker on for a while here and there in the world economy, but it will not be restored.  Something else will happen.

Where Will They All Work?

“Consider Stanford’s experience: Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.

Besides the Artificial Intelligence course, Stanford offered two other MOOCs last semester — Machine Learning (104,000 registered, and 13,000 completed the course), and Introduction to Databases (92,000 registered, 7,000 completed). And this spring, the university will have 13 courses open to the world, including Anatomy, Cryptography, Game Theory and Natural Language Processing.”

Tamar Lewin, Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls, New York Times, March 4, 2012.

COMMENTS

Stanford is only the tip of a global iceberg of educational capacity growth that is beginning to dump huge numbers of well educated workers into the world economy.

A big question for state university systems:  If you are the son or daughter of a middle class family in China or India or Kenya or Peru, why settle for an online education at State U. when universities of the caliber of Stanford, MIT, and Harvard offer unlimited enrollment opportunities?

For more on this issue, see my previous post:

Too Many Well Educated Workers: a Global Problem and a U.S. Policy Dilemma, February 29, 2012

U.S. Workers Are Settling Into a Global Era of Fewer Good Jobs and Declining Incomes

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Chart-Missing Civilian Labor Force
Source: Andrew Sum, et al (see citation below quote)

“Following 2007, the pool of hidden unemployed has risen steadily and strongly from 4.7 million in 2007 to close to 6.5 million in 2011; a rise close to 1.8 million or 40%. This was the third largest annual average number of hidden unemployed in the 45 year history for which such data exist dating back to 1967.”

Andrew Sum, Mykhaylo Trubskyy, with  Sheila Palma, The Great Recession of 2007-2009, the Lagging Jobs Recovery, and the Missing 5-6 Million National Labor Force Participants in 2011: Why We Should Care, Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies, January 2012

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Change in Average Hourly Earnings of U.S. Employees, 2006 – 2011

Chart-Average Hourly EarningsSource: Historical Data, Current Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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“Spain’s jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24 is approaching 50 percent. Greece’s is 48 percent, and Portugal’s and Italy’s, 30 percent. Here in Britain, the rate is 22.3 percent, the highest since such data began being collected in 1992. (The comparable rate for Americans is 18 percent.)

Thomas Landon, For London Youth, Down and Out Is Way of Life, New York Times, February 15, 2012

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Looking at the changes within countries over time, the overall long-term trend is obvious: the majority of countries have witnessed increases in low-wage employment over the past 15 years. Overall, figure 20 shows that, since the second half of the 1990s, low pay has increased in about two-thirds of countries for which data are available (25 out of 37 countries). … While it is too soon for an assessment of the short-term effect of the crisis on low pay (since few countries have published their data on low pay in 2009), there is little reason to believe that a global recession will have brought about any improvement in the overall situation of low-paid workers.

Global Wage Report 2010/11: Wage policies in times of crisis, International Labour Organization, December, 2010

COMMENTS

In a free market economy, buyers and sellers negotiate prices.  When buyers have lots of choices and sellers don’t, buyers have the leverage to push prices downward.

We have seen this in the U.S. housing market: huge numbers of houses are on the market and an army of builders are waiting in the wings to put even more houses on the market – the ratio of sellers to buyers is very high.  Thus, even though houses are beginning to sell a little better, prices are still falling.

The same thing has happened in the global labor market: the ratio of available workers (sellers) to employers with jobs to fill (buyers) is very high, and it will stay high.  There are several structural reasons:

  • the integration of national economies into a single world economy based on free market principles has made huge numbers of unemployed and underemployed workers newly available to the world’s major employers and many intermediate size employers
  • expanding national education systems are producing a growing supply of skilled workers for the global labor market
  • the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 produced large numbers of business failures and consolidations, reducing the number of employers competing for the growing global supply of workers
  • the production of a given volume of goods and services continues to require fewer and fewer workers as machines and computers do more of the brute work and more of the routine thinking
  • global consumption of goods and services is not growing fast enough to reduce the ratio of available workers to available jobs.

Thus, even though hiring in the U.S. is beginning to get a little better, the bargaining position of U.S. workers, even those who are unionized, continues to deteriorate.  Given this trend, either real U.S. wages and incomes will decline much further, or rates of unemployment, underemployment, and non-participation of working age people in the workforce will remain high.

Overheated Global Competition Drives Job Growth Down

Estimated Job Shortage 2012-13
Estimated Job Shortage 2012-13

Table presented in World of Work Report 2011, International Labor Organization, October 31, 2011, Pg. 9.

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“Non-financial firms have increasingly invested in financial assets at the expense of physical assets. … This is particularly the case with firms in advanced economies, but in recent years, developing and emerging economies have started to exhibit similar trends. …   Empirical evidence shows that rising profitability in the financial sector has played an important role in drawing in investment from the non-financial sector towards the financial sector.”

World of Work Report 2011, ILO, October 31, 2011, pg. 41.

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“The great thing about the new I.T. revolution, says Jeff Weiner, the C.E.O. of LinkedIn, is that ‘it makes it easier and cheaper than ever for anyone anywhere to be an entrepreneur’ and to have access to all the best infrastructure of innovation.”

Thomas Friedman, One Country, Two Revolutions, New York Times, October 22, 2011.

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“… technology investments are playing an increasingly larger role in mid-market companies’ bottom line. Business process automation and technology improvements are the two top contributing factors to the jump in mid-market productivity; new hiring ranked fifth overall. …

“’Technology is on the mind of most mid-market executives,’ said McGee [Tom McGee, national managing partner, Deloitte Growth Enterprise Services, Deloitte LLP].  ‘ … 74 percent of respondents believe globalization is forcing U.S. companies to become more productive to stay competitive … and set themselves apart from the pack ‘”

Deloitte: Mid-Market Executives Increase Long-Term Investments Despite Economic Uncertainty, Deloitte Press Release, Oct. 10, 2011.

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“Despite representing only … 19 percent of employment [in 2007], multinational companies contributed 41 percent to overall productivity growth from 1990 to 2007.”

James Manyika et al, Growth and renewal in the United States: Retooling America’s economic engine, McKinsey Global Institute, February 2011.

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“His solution is to offer a new and altogether different kind of TV set, although in typical CEO fashion, he refuses to elaborate on what that might involve. He simply offers the assurance that a great deal of R&D investment is going into designing a new TV that could reverse Sony’s fortunes.”

Vlad Savov, Sony CEO Howard Stringer: Every TV set we make loses money, Washington Post (originally published in The Verge), Friday, November 11.

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“First, in a global economy, we need to be thinking more about the sources of apparent productivity growth. It matters greatly for wages and employment whether rising value-added per worker is being driven by domestic production improvements, supply chain efficiencies, or by productivity gains abroad. …

Second, government policies designed to increase incentives for business investment, such as accelerated expensing, may have the effect of increasing supply chain efficiency rather than domestic productivity. …

Third, we are effectively flying blind in terms of the effect of the global economy on US workers.”

Michael Mandel and Susan Houseman, Not all productivity gains are the same. Here’s why, What Matters, McKinsey & Company,  June 1, 2011.

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The transformations in communications, transportation, transnational trade and investment flows, geopolitics, and access to advanced technologies that we summarize with the term globalization have greatly multiplied the number of businesses in every sector of the world economy competing for customers.

Moreover, companies are competing for a stagnant number of consumers and consumer dollars.   Although the buying power of working families is growing in the countries experiencing rapid economic growth (called the emerging economies), it is declining or barely growing in many of the advanced economies and in many other parts of the world.  This is greatly intensifying the competition among the worlds much larger number of competing business enterprises.

This environment of overheated competition puts enormous downward pressure on global job growth.  It drives the owners and managers of almost every business enterprise to pursue strategies that are good for the business but destructive to the world’s labor force much more aggressively than would be the case in an environment of moderated competitive pressures.  These strategies include:

  • Investments in financial assets as a way to park money that can’t be profitably invested in production of goods and services
  • Large investments in technologies that reduce work hours without reducing the capacity to meet existing customer demand
  • Large investments in product innovations designed to displace similar products rather than to create new products that meet new needs
  • Large investments in ad campaigns designed to lure current consumers to change consumption activities (e.g., switch from watching TV to playing video games)

The impact of these strategies on employment is fairly straight forward:

  • Profitable investment opportunities are in short supply, so money parked in financial assets is more likely to help generate financial bubbles than to generate new jobs
  • Productivity gains eliminate jobs when demand for products and services is not growing
  • Investments that only lure consumers to replace one product for another, to replace one consumer activity with another, and/or to buy the same product from a different company only move consumers around in the market place; the net effect on the labor force is job churning not job growth.

Overheated global competition will continue to do harm to global job growth until a global policy response creates a mechanism for market sharing and puts boundaries on the use of competitive strategies.  Without that response,  global rates of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and political upheaval will continue to increase.  And the U.S. will not avoid sharing in these miseries.

How Many Professional Workers Can Ten Thousand Super Computers Supervise?

“A new supervising service called Humanoid launched today, backed by funding from Google Ventures. Humanoid will rent out armies of humans (they have 20,000 workers already signed up to start) for $4.99 per hour to develop software, supervised by an algorithm.”

Christie Nicholson, Google-backed robot overlords take over supervision of human workers, IBM SmartPlanet, November 2, 2011

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“China has made its first supercomputer based on Chinese microprocessor chips, an advance that surprised high-performance computing specialists in the United States.

The Sunway system, which can perform about 1,000 trillion calculations per second — a petaflop — will probably rank among the 20 fastest computers in the world. More significantly, it is composed of 8,700 ShenWei SW1600 microprocessors, designed at a Chinese computer institute and manufactured in Shanghai.”

John Markoff, China Has Homemade Supercomputer Gain, New York Times, October 28, 2011

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It is said that at some point accumulating quantitative change becomes a qualitative change — a spring rain lasting forty days and forty nights becomes something other than a rainy spring!  Has the world had its forty days and forty nights of global technological change? – if not, it has surely had at least thirty days and the pace of technological change is accelerating.  Imagine a world in which a hundred million people (working below the U.S. minimum wage and supervised by Humanoid and similar programs) are writing software code intended to displace professional workers in law, medicine, teaching, business management, consulting, and government.

The core question for the 21st century is this: how will the world’s nations create socially legitimate entitlements to income in an era when only a minority of the world’s working-age people can obtain income through work and most of those who do work are paid less than a living wage?

Depreciate This: Good for the Stock Market, Bad for the Job Market

“Capital goods orders rose a robust 4.2 percent in August from July.

Core capital goods orders — nondefense bookings for items such as industrial machinery, power transmission equipment and computers, but excluding the auto and aircraft sectors — rose 1.1 percent.

‘We think large companies are so cash-rich that they can keep spending despite lower confidence. In competitive industries, the company which does not spend loses market share,’ he [Ian Shepherdson at High Frequency Economics] said.”

US capital goods orders shine in August, Breitbart.com, Sep 28, 2011

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“The business spending … may be further supported by a December agreement between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. Companies will be able to depreciate 100 percent of capital equipment put in service by the end of this year.”

Bob Willis, Demand for U.S. Capital Goods Rises by Most in Three Months, Washington Post, Sep 28, 2011

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From the standpoint of business leaders, the impact of investments in capital goods on employment opportunities is only a side effect.  If the investments contribute to job growth, they are happy to get the positive public relations bump.  If they undercut job growth, well, that’s just unavoidable collateral damage.

Yes, a burst of investments in capital goods can generate employment, but only in the short term.  Downstream, as those new computers, manufacturing robots, and assorted other high end technologies go live in workplaces, jobs will bleed out, more than offsetting short term job gains.

We now live in a world in which an accelerating global shift in the mix of humans and machines engaged in the production of goods and services is squeezing the life out of employment and income growth.  The pace at which machine energy is replacing human energy in the workplace is accelerating.  Machine energy has already replaced enormous amounts of human energy in agriculture, mining and manufacturing.  Today machine energy is increasingly replacing human energy used in thinking (evaluation and decision-making activities) in more and more fields of work, including professional fields.

Public policy cannot and should not stop innovation and the growing use of machines to supplement and replace humans in the workplace.  (Indeed, workers in many types of work are still exposed to dangers that can best be reduced by using more machines.)  But, use of tax write offs to encourage even faster displacement of workers by machines when done in the absence of a comprehensive policy approach to creating wealth and equitably distributing that wealth is extraordinarily wrongheaded.  Such unlinked use of tax write offs can only exacerbate the damage already being done to jobs and income in the U.S.

This kind of unlinked use of tax write offs is not just a U.S. practice.  Many of the world’s nations take the same approach to increasing market shares in very competitive global investment markets.  These nation by nation tax write off practices aggregate into a global economic force that increases wealth production and increases corporate profits, but also relentlessly destroys jobs and the incomes of families that depend on those jobs.

As of now the world does not have a comprehensive policy approach to managing the growth of the world economy.  More to the point, the world does not have global institutions with the power to coordinate economic policy-making across the world’s nations on behalf of the world’s people.  Thus, the ongoing global transition to more and more use of machines in place of people is both unmanaged and unmanageable.  The largely destructive aspects of this transition cannot yet be addressed and rectified.

In this context, the Obama administration’s 100 percent depreciation of new equipment can only become a 100 percent disaster for working families in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.