Productivity and Unemployment: A Relationship

Labor productivity is an index of economic output divided by labor input. This figure rises and falls several times a year and productivity often spikes at the same time that unemployment spikes. During a spike like this, I sometimes read an editorial or hear a commentator pontificating about employers harvesting more products and services from fewer hours and fewer employees. What a revelation!
For decades, industry has employed machines and computers to replace human labor. From robotic welding to leaf blowers and snow throwers, industrialists and workers alike avoid human labor in favor of machines. I believe that we’ve all taken this trend too far. Supplies of fossil fuels aren’t infinite and too many people are sick from sedentary living and environmental pollution. The current almost universal preference for machines over human power isn’t desirable or sustainable any more at its current level.

Examining Our Assumptions

We assume that economic growth, rising labor productivity, and college for all our young people are the basis for a healthy economy and society. However, economic growth conflicts with environmental preservation. Increasing productivity conflicts with reducing unemployment. And what about all the manual labor it takes to run our society? Why is a college graduate with no job skills somehow more successful than a farm worker?
Germany has Europe’s lowest unemployment rate because of its exemplary apprenticeship programs. More educated blue-collar workers probably increases the demand for blue-collar work in Germany. Germans respect their skilled workers more than us Americans.

Revising Our Educational Priorities

Americans need a more positive attitude about manual labor. We should appreciate that blue-collar workers possess important knowledge, skills, and abilities and they need effective vocational education. Workers doing manual labor don’t represent a failure of our educational system to send everyone to college. Our laboring workers have the primary responsibility for providing society with food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.
The German’s have a good idea by setting policy and focusing major resources for educating blue-collar workers. We have vocational schools and apprenticeship programs too, but most of our blue-collar workers receive only informal on-the-job training. Maybe our neglect of vocational education limits the demand for blue-collar work.
I believe that Americans spend too many resources on college and not enough on vocational education.