Tale of Bob, The Blue Collar American Worker
Bob was driving his one ton duly pickup truck out of his highly mortgaged driveway to work when he received a call from his employer, Global Bicycles.
“We’re sorry, Mr. Bob. We regret to inform you that your position is no longer available.”
“How did this happen?” Bob asked.
“As all real Americans know, a combination of greedy executives, flagging patriotism and voracious third world peasants are conspiring to steal your job. Please take comfort in knowing that the villains are all very far away and stereotypically ‘other.’ Further, it should bring you some solace to know this version of events leaves you completely blameless.”
Bob did indeed feel better, but remained stubbornly out of work through countless job interviews and employment applications. To understand this futility, let’s examine his situation. For starters Bob is probably a man. The recession has damaged men, less educated and more expensive to employ, far more than women. His education probably does not extend much beyond high school. Finally, he likely came from a semi-skilled, high paying job, the most expendable positions in this recession.
At the bicycle factory Bob can build 1 bicycle, at an average sale price of $40, every hour. If the cost of keeping a roof over Bob’s head, supplying his tools, attracting his customers and paying his salary stays under $40 per hour, Bob’s labor is an economically viable product. Before the recession began, Global Bicycles estimated Bob’s total cost of employment at $35 an hour, leaving a $5 profit on each new machine. Assuming there are no other bicycle assemblymen in the market, this is the only calculus the employer needs. However, because of the Great Recession, the employer fired Bob and experimented with cheaper ways of subsisting while the economy recovered. The employer tried robots, Malaysians and simply downsizing.
In Global Bicycle’s first factory, the robots had higher initial costs than Bob but required no salary, no insurance and no benefits. For mindless tasks like bicycle assembly, the quality does not suffer and the work rate goes up. Because Bob does almost nothing better than the robots, costs more and goes slower, there is no reason for the employer to take him back at his old position. Because Bob, like 73% of Americans, is not a college graduate and, like 18% of Americans, cannot remember if the sun revolves around the earth or the other way around, there is no point in promoting him to bicycle design or the marketing department.
The employer has relocated his second factory to Malaysia. In the past this was impractical because Malaysia had bad infrastructure, corruption and poor quality workers. So while the average Malaysian’s salary was lower, that was not enough to offset the costs of doing business in a country with a transit system based on donkeys. But this has been changing. Where Bob is and has remained poorly educated at about the same level since the 1970s, the Malaysians have dramatically improved the quality and education of their workers. While Bob’s country has done almost nothing to improve infrastructure, Malaysia has gone on a building spree. While Bob’s country has wallowed in libertarianism and creation science, Malaysia has gone about comprehensively improving its industry, society and international standing. Now the Malaysians offer nearly the same quality as Bob but at a labor cost a mere fraction as high. Clearly the employer has no reason to forsake Malaysia for Bob.
In its third factory, Global Bicycle simply cuts back its work force. Where three workers were needed before, now the employer has two. Owing to the bad job market, these two workers cannot complain about their higher work loads. Since they also are poorly educated, highly paid blue collar workers, they know that if there are problems, they will be the first to go. So they accelerate their build rates and forget to bill their overtime. They decide not to join the labor union and gain a new respect for company policy. Since it is so easy to replace any of the blue collar workers at a lower cost, the employer has no reason to make room for Bob. More surprisingly still, many factories like General Bicycle find that Bob cannot even compete with an idle workstation, as shown by their lower employment and rising production.
Bob searched for a new job for six months. Like many Americans, he is unwilling to take much of a pay cut, he is unconvinced of the need for more education – despite of the low 5% unemployment college graduates enjoy – and he does not think it necessary to relocate over long distances. His risk of suicide increases, his divorce rate spikes as his wife takes on ever more responsibility for the family finances. He even becomes more likely to abuse his spouse and children. On his 180th day of unemployment, Bob comes home and pours out his heart.
“What happened to this country? What happened to the days when an honest man could do honest work and support his family? I feel so expendable, so lost. Maybe I’m just a dinosaur.”
His wife, packing the children’s lunches while adjusting her business suit and gathering the books for her night classes at community college, has little patience for Bob’s moping.
“You have two choices Bob, figure out some way to make yourself useful or fade into irrelevance. The world changes and you have to change with it.”
Sadly, Bob is still too busy discussing greedy executives, lack of patriotism and voracious third world peasants to change anything.
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