Consider the textile industry. In 1894 it was a mainstay of the New England economy. In the 20th Century the mills were moved south to take advantage of cheaper labor in states such as North Carolina. Then they were on the move again in search of even cheaper labor overseas, leaving buildings vacant and communities devastated.
But that’s not the end of the story. In recent years, textile production in North Carolina is again on the rise. Exports are rising and new plants are being built. That’s good news for labor, right?
Yes and no. Consider the National Spinning Company plant in Burlington. It dyes more than 250,000 pounds of yarn per week in a variety of colors. But much of the work is done by robots. The plant employs only about 100 people, according to VOA News.
“As you see, most of this is extremely heavy, cumbersome, and trying to move it around in the order that these robots do it, it would take an army of men to accomplish what these robots do,” said Michael Hankensen, one of two technicians who service the dye producing machines.
The automation allows National Spinning to compete with low-wage foreign outfits. It provides jobs paying up to $20 an hour for 100 North Carolinians who might otherwise be unemployed. But it doesn’t address the plight of the armies of people left without jobs as this and other industries evolve.
Some say the answer is to retreat behind our borders and throw up fences to keep imports out. The U.S. does run a trade deficit with the rest of the world, but much of that is due to oil imports. And do we really want the inflation that would come with keeping out cheaper foreign goods? That would erode the buying power of everyone.
The solution – and it’s not going to be an easy one – is to produce a labor force for the 21st Century, people with the skills to fill today’s jobs and the ability to adapt to the changes tomorrow will bring.
We’re not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but we do know that starving the public schools for money is not the answer. North Carolina needs to get per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, back up to pre-recession levels and stop siphoning money off for gimmicks such as vouchers.
We need a school system that endows students with basic skills. Beyond that, however, the schools must teach those students how to think. Narrow training to fill a specific job is no help when that job no longer exists. The worker must be able to learn the skills necessary for whatever job comes next.
Back in 1894 the issues were different. As the History Channel notes, “The average American worked 12-hour days and seven day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.
“People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.”
By and large, those conditions are history. We demonstrated that as a people we could confront such problems and surmount them. With that same sort of determination, we can meet the challenges of 2016 and beyond.
— The Asheville Citizen-Times