Kendra Coburn is a mathematics junior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
As a student in higher education, you are working towards becoming a member of one of America’s most elite minority classes: college graduates. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Education in 2016, bachelor degree-holders greater than the age of 25 enjoy a low 2.7 percent unemployment rate, compared to the 5.2 percent seen among those of the same age range with only high school diplomas. They also earn about 40 percent more per week while having statistically-higher job satisfaction than those of without a college degree. Yet according to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 72 percent of 27-year-old Americans do not hold a bachelor’s degree.
For most of our nation’s history, this lopsided proportion hasn’t been a problem. There has always been a steady supply of middle-class, low-skill jobs for Americans without college degrees.
However, machine automation poses a serious threat to these low-skill jobs. A recent Oxford University study estimates that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs could become automated in the next two decades. This will displace human workers and force them to find higher-skill jobs that can’t be performed by machines.
By necessity, this will lead to more Americans entering the college system than ever before — at a time when college tuition is more expensive than ever. It isn’t difficult to see how this will lead to more Americans entering a cycle of debt as they take out student loans in pursuit of the higher education needed for work.
Is the evaporation of the blue collar class inevitable? Will the march of progress unavoidably leave behind the lesser-educated? It is easy to rally a witch hunt when looking for an explanation for such a complex issue. Some look to other explanations for the disappearance of American blue collar jobs, in the hopes of placing blame on something tangible.
Last year, President Trump claimed on his campaign website that “America has lost nearly one-third of its manufacturing jobs since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and 50,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization.”
This explanation seems reasonable unless one looks at a study by Ball State University that found 85 percent of this job loss can actually be attributed to technology and automation changes rather than international trade. In fact, some economists even warn that bringing outsourced jobs back into domestic businesses might lead to further long-term job loss by means of automation.
It is at this point in this article that the student reader might wonder, “I’m going to college, so I don’t have to worry about my job being automated. Why does any of this matter to me?”
I present this article as an ethical challenge to the reader. As students of one of the highest-rated technical colleges on the West Coast, many of you will pursue jobs in the industrial and technical fields after graduation. The American economic machine encourages optimizing profits at any cost.
As technology improves at an exponential rate, it will become increasingly easy to lose sight of those Americans working at the fundamental levels of industry.
I urge the reader to strive to find the balance between innovation and ethics. As humanity marches forward, it’s important to not leave the blue collar worker behind.