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Global Issues in Employment

January 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 4

Six months ago, C&EN carried an article with the headline "Unemployment at Record High" (C&EN, June 23, 2003, page 12). This rather disturbing information was drawn from the 2003 ACS annual member survey, which also showed that industrial chemists were in the category with the worst problem. I doubt that the situation has improved much to date.

It is important to note, though, that the bad news is limited neither to chemists nor to the chemical industry. Overall, job creation throughout the U.S. economy has been very sluggish for some time, even though the gross domestic product (GDP) has been growing. The business press has been filled with articles about "jobless recoveries"; the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs over the past three years; and the increase in global outsourcing of even such sophisticated jobs as computer programming, R&D, and engineering support. This is not a short-term problem.

"We are now seeing the automation of many white-collar jobs and the shifting of other jobs to other countries, with no obvious 'next sector' in sight."

The U.S. economy has been undergoing some major structural changes over the past couple of decades. I can describe the major enabling factors in two phrases--the rapid development and spread of computer and telecommunications applications and the globalization of work.

Computerization has spearheaded enormous productivity increases, not only in blue-collar manufacturing kinds of activities, but also in traditionally labor-intensive white-collar services such as banking, records management, publishing, data retrieval, and much more. This "digitization" of white-collar work has made much of it location-independent, because the electronic output can be transmitted rapidly to almost anywhere around the world. In other words, globalization now refers not only to the movement of factories overseas, but also to the transfer of a lot of service activities to other countries.

I believe we have reached a critical point in our national economic history. In the past, when technology-based productivity improvements caused large decreases in labor demand in a particular sector, another part of the economy grew rapidly enough over time to create the jobs needed to absorb those displaced (for example, the shift from agricultural employment to manufacturing employment in the 19th century and the shift from blue-collar manufacturing employment to white-collar jobs during the 20th century). We are now seeing the automation of many white-collar jobs and the shifting of other jobs to other countries, with no obvious "next sector" in sight.

Some economists say that the economy will soon turn around and job growth will increase. That's probably true, but as recent experience has shown, we can have a lot of economic growth without a lot of job growth. This is precisely because we can produce both goods and services more efficiently with modern technologies, and we can import them efficiently as well. Technology developments in newer areas--for example, biotech--will create some new jobs for chemists and others, but simple growth probably will not solve our overall employment problems fast enough.

We need to look at work time, too. In addition to the sectoral labor shifts I mentioned above, over the long term there were major changes in work schedules as well. In agricultural economies, the workweek is seven days long. When the U.S. became more manufacturing based, there was a shift to the six-day workweek, with eventual movement to the standard five-day, 40-hour workweek. Paid vacations shortened work years, and pensions helped to shorten lifetime work. All of these developments, helped along by growing productivity, reduced the amount of labor performed by an individual and thus created opportunities for more jobs. Unfortunately, this trend has virtually stopped in the U.S., and for many individuals (for example, middle managers and survivors in downsized companies), it has reversed. It would probably take legislation to go to a four-day workweek, or, as in Western Europe, greatly expanded vacation time. This is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

So what can chemical professionals do? The first thing is to recognize, as many have, that the world will continue to change. Investing time and effort in continuing education activities, both to keep current as well as to be in a position to take advantage of new opportunities, is essential. Maintaining contacts with colleagues and expanding one's personal network should also be routine. A way to do both is to take full advantage of the many products and services offered by your professional society, ACS, from journals and meetings to career services and surveys. (By the way, the welfare of our members is a prime concern of the board of directors, so even though we believe that ACS offers an excellent suite of benefits and services, we would welcome suggestions for additional services that would be of value in these uncertain times.)

There are limits to what individuals can do. The economy still has to produce enough slots to employ the people looking for employment, including chemists and engineers. These are issues that, unfortunately, may be with us for some time. We on the board will continue to think about them, and other bodies within ACS, such as the Council Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs, are also concerned. The problems are clearer than the solutions, though, so let us hear from you.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ACS Board.



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