The jobs paradox

Published 10:47 pm Thursday, November 7, 2013

Some years ago, when I was in the business of manufacturing agricultural machinery, a troubling thought occurred to me.

Back in the late 1800s, it took nearly 80 percent of the American population to raise enough food to support the whole population. Throughout the 20th century, advances in agricultural technology were made so that as time passed, fewer and fewer people were needed to raise enough food to feed all of us.

Today, less than 3 percent of the population is involved in agribusiness, and they produce enough to meet our needs and have some left over to export. Consequently, there are fewer jobs available in the field of agriculture.


Email newsletter signup

For 50 years, our business, Hobbs-Adams Engineering Company (later Amadas Industries), has been a strong contributor to those improvements in agricultural productivity.

From my perspective of the manufacturing side of that business during much of that time, I observed another trend that paralleled what I was seeing in agriculture.

In the early 1960s when we started the business, most manufacturing was what we called “mass production.” That is, most factories had lots of people operating lots of machine tools that were turning out nearly identical products.

In the 1980s, we at Hobbs-Adams installed our first computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine tools. Using those tools allowed us to make parts faster and more accurately than ever before. We could even make things that simply could not be made by conventional non-CNC machine tools.

We eventually adopted “lean manufacturing” and “six-sigma” process improvement techniques that further improved our quality and productivity.

Fortunately, the demand for our products grew along with our productivity improvements. We found that as our sales and production grew, we didn’t need to increase our workforce by a corresponding amount. We could build more with fewer people.

I became concerned. Suppose that the same thing were to happen in manufacturing that had previously happened in agriculture? Suppose advanced manufacturing technology made it possible to build what we needed with very few workers? Suppose it was all just done by robots, and manufacturing jobs just went away?

The Industrial Revolution created manufacturing jobs for many people. Those jobs produced tangible goods, and the wealth they created supported a new class of people in society. Those people were what we today call the middle class.

One of the greatest problems we Americans are facing today is the shrinking of the middle class. The distribution of wealth is becoming narrower, with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and those in the middle migrating either upward or downward.

It seems my fears are being realized, but fortunately only in part. Some manufacturing jobs became obsolete, but others remain that require much more sophisticated qualifications and skills than in the old mass-production days. They are both more challenging and more rewarding. And on average, they pay higher wages than the average of jobs in other sectors of the economy.

Here is the part that puzzles me. There is plenty of unmet demand out there for skilled workers. For many years we at Amadas Industries have struggled to find people who were capable of operating the computerized machine tools that are so critical to our operation.

To make matters worse, it is estimated that 15 percent of Virginia’s manufacturing workforce could retire by 2016, taking with them some of our ability to manufacture. Those people will be leaving jobs that create “new wealth” that gets passed around through the community and supports other jobs.

More than any other sector of the economy, manufacturing is the plankton that feeds the economic food chain. It is the best way we have to support service jobs, pay for health care, pay for our government provided services, and even reduce our debt.

There are jobs out there. Training is available. But where are the workers?

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at