Can Trump stop the automation revolution and save US jobs?

US president-elect Donald Trump wants to launch a counter-insurgency against globalization and restore job growth for US workers. But, where does he stand on the biggest threat to the labor force?

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Donald Trump

Image: Michael F. Hiatt, Getty/iStockphoto

For all the finger-pointing at fake news on Facebook, voter turnout at a 20-year low, and angry American balloters, Donald Trump was elected US president for the same reason as Bill Clinton in 1992: He talked about jobs a lot more than his opponent.

Back then, Clinton only won his party's nomination because none of its leaders relished a run against George H. W. Bush's 89% approval rating. But, the 1990-91 recession eventually caught up with Bush. It had a severe impact on US jobs and Bush was perceived by voters as being blasé about it, while Clinton made it the center of his campaign.

"It's the economy, stupid" was famously coined during that election cycle by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville.

For all of the distractions and controversies that swirled around the Trump campaign, what enough voters connected to was Trump's economic populism. He successfully voiced the sentiments of anxious Americans who had little confidence that the current course of the country could improve their economic options.

Trump excoriated US corporations for exporting jobs to Mexico and China, blamed global trade deals for causing it, and lamented the decline of the American working class. And, he promised tariffs and trade wars to reverse the effects.

However, both Trump and Hillary Clinton spent very little time during the 2016 campaign talking about the bigger threat to US jobs: automation.

It's something we've spent a lot of time thinking about over the past two years at ZDNet and TechRepublic and it's the topic of our current special report, How to Automate the Enterprise, where we cover best practices and explore how AI can enhance workers instead of replacing them. It's a topic we've explored in other ZDNet special reports and TechRepublic cover stories as well:

Make no mistake, technology and globalism were on the ballot in the US presidential election, just as they were in the UK Brexit earlier this year. In both cases, the voters indicted political leaders, business tycoons, and the tech industry for disregarding the plight of workers during the tech-powered revolution of the past two decades.

At best, the tech and business communities have been callous--and at worst complicit--in destroying working class jobs and giving little thought to the overall impact on their local communities. In business-speak, you could argue that in the process they've undermined the markets for their products by impoverishing potential customers.

However, businesses will say that they are in a desperate fight to remain competitive and that a big part of running a well-disciplined company is always looking for ways to operate less expensively. So, when it comes to shipping labor overseas, hiring engineers on H1B visas, or simply thinning the ranks of their labor force, businesses do it because it's easy, fast, and cheap.

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The caveat is that the political and regulatory environment can change, and if it does then it can become easier, faster, and cheaper to do something else.

And that brings us to the lightening rod of the nascent Trump administration: Steve Bannon.

Bannon, the CEO of the Trump campaign, has been appointed as the president-elect's chief White House strategist--an appointment that triggered condemnation because of Bannon's association with racist and anti-semitic views as the executive chairman of Breitbart News.

Nevertheless, Trump appears unmoved by the criticisms against Bannon. Even more important for the topic at hand, Bannon hasn't been sitting atop Trump Tower and plotting a social revolution. Instead, he's working on ideas for how to re-empower the American working class, according to journalist Michael Wolff, who got inside access to Bannon last week.

When Wolff met with Bannon a couple months ago, Bannon made the wild claim (at the time) that Trump was going to ride working class support to victories in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and win the election. Of course, those four states plus Wisconsin were the ones that eventually swung Trump to a surprise victory and turned Bannon into the James Carville, or Karl Rove, of the 2016 election. He saw something in the electorate that others didn't yet see, and it ultimately got his candidate elected.

Apparently, Bannon doesn't intend to forget that and wants to build on it as the foundation of the president-elect's political base. Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure plan--recently criticized by Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen as unwise--is Bannon's brainchild, according to Wolff. The timing of the move, which would spawn lots of new construction jobs, is perfect in Bannon's view because of how low interest rates are.

While Bannon has already embraced his role as the Darth Vader of the Trump team, he's also putting out some broader, more inclusive rhetoric. He told Wolff that if the Trump administration succeeds in its mission of restoring middle class jobs then it will benefit all Americans and "we'll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote."

Bannon added to Wolff, "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist."

But, what Trump and Bannon are still missing is a plan to deal with the potential displacement of workers that artificial intelligence and automation could unleash in the years ahead. Technology, software, and algorithms are going to automate away a lot of repetitive tasks--from fast food order taking to long-haul trucking to telemarketing. There's nothing that can be done to stop technology from making these things more efficient.

No US president--or any other national leader, for that matter--has ever successfully turned back the tide of history. And here's a spoiler on the next four years: Donald Trump won't either.

SEE: When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do

However, there are two things that the Trump administration can do, and is likely to do once it gathers enough smart people around a table to tackle its top priority of US jobs:

  1. Transition displaced workers into new skills, jobs, and industries.
  2. Incent businesses to use and train American labor and penalize those who don't.

Number one has been happening for decades, with mixed results. But with a Trump administration laser-focused on jobs, it appears likely to accelerate with greater funding. Number two is far more controversial and politically divisive. Trump is likely to face his biggest fight from Republicans who don't like to see the government place heavy burdens on businesses.

He's also likely to get a fight from the technology industry, where over half of billion dollar startups are founded by immigrants and a quarter of all tech startups have at least one immigrant founder. This is made possible by the current environment where foreign nationals come to the US to study, stay to work at local tech jobs (especially in Silicon Valley), and then go on to launch their own companies. If the Trump administration disrupts that, it could result in many of the best minds in tech returning home--or going to other international startup hubs like Paris or Berlin--to launch their companies.

Still, by changing the environment, the administration in Washington can do a lot to change the behavior of companies--especially when a change inside the Beltway is powered by a mood change in the American electorate.

For example, in the past week Apple and Ford have made moves to bolster their high tech manufacturing jobs in the US, as a reaction to the election.

Both companies have been on this path for years. Apple opened new facilities in Arizona, Texas, and Pennsylvania in 2013, and is now exploring manufacturing the iPhone in the US. Ford has long been one of the largest employers in the US and manufacturers many of its vehicles in America, but last week it announced that it was ending plans to move production of a Lincoln SUV to Mexico. The move wasn't actually going to cost any American jobs because Ford was doing it to create the capacity to produce another vehicle at its Louisville Assembly Plant. But, the company judged that the public relations cost had become too high in the current environment and so the move will ostensibly mean creating more jobs in the US.

Both Apple and Ford were specific Trump targets during the campaign for exporting US jobs overseas, so the recent moves show that Trump could have success in changing the atmosphere of the business community in the US.

How the Trump administration will face the larger issue of job displacement from AI and automation is going to take longer to figure out.

Also see

ZDNet Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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