Labor’s Twilight

Labor’s Twilight

Labors Twilight-The Changing American Workforce

The Changing American Workforce

by Gary Kaplan
photos by Matthew Kaplan

Labor Day 2019

In the 1800s the Calumet region of northwest Indiana was Chicago’s Cape Cod. The baltic blue crescent of Lake Michigan swung serenely eastward from the state line. Tawny beaches and rolling sand dunes offered refuge from the raucous, brawling city of the big shoulders. Windwarped swale and reedy marshland attracted hunters and fishermen, birdwatchers and botanists. The lowslung lakefront lured industrial land scouts.

In 1889, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company broke ground for a refinery on the lakeshore just east of the state line near a railroad junction called Whiting’s Siding. Within a few years the Whiting Refinery was the largest in the US. In 1906 J.P. Morgan and Judge Elbert Gary began construction on the US Steel Gary Works. By midcentury, the 20 miles of lakeshore between Chicago and Gary had filled in shoulder to shoulder with oil refineries, steel mills and chemical plants. The Calumet Region, named by 17th century French trappers for the marsh reeds (chalumet) that choked their canoe channels, had been transformed into the largest industrial concentration in the world.

The Changing American Workforce-East Chicago Canal

Those industries needed labor. In the 1970s, heavy industry in the Calumet Region, collectively known as “the mills,” employed over 100,000 workers. Most of them belonged to unions. Their wages, benefits and pensions enabled them to own houses, raise families, buy cars, send children to college, and retire in their 60s with enough pension, savings and social security to live comfortably in their paid-off houses and enjoy their grandchildren for the balance of their 68 years of life expectancy. Their industrial union wages created a thriving economy. Their taxes built roads and schools, paid police and teachers and firemen. Settlement pushed south and east from the mill gates. By 1970 the Region’s population exceeded 770,000.

But things were changing

One morning in the 1970s my father slid onto the stool at the counter of his regular diner next to a friend who worked at Inland Steel. As they sipped their scalding coffee, the man told my dad that he was going to be laid off. The job he had done for twenty-five years was being “automated.” He was being replaced by a machine. It wasn’t the first instance of “automation,” but it was the first to hit so close to home.

Industrial labor was hard, dirty and dangerous. Steel-toed boots, asbestos gloves and hard hats were supposed to protect workers from the bubbling molten steel and hissing gas flares and toxic chemical fumes they tended all day long, and all night on third shifts. Those flimsy membranes didn’t prevent workers from losing fingers, getting hands crushed or being scarred by third degree burns when something erupted or burst or came crashing down. Occasionally a man would be killed. Billboards at the mill gates announced the number of days since the last industrial accident. Everyone knew that working in the mills was dangerous. But the pay and the job security were worth the risk.

No human activity has been more disruptive to the natural order than heavy industry, but none has produced greater improvements in the material conditions of human life. The 68-year life expectancy of the 1970s steelworker was almost fifty percent longer than the 46 years of his 1900 predecessor, and his mid-century lifespan has been eclipsed in turn by the current 76 years.

The Changing American Workforce-US Steel South

The labor market is changing in ways that go far beyond the automation that worried my father. A fundamental transformation of the structure of jobs and the very content of work is taking place, enabled by interlinking technologies of cloud computing and the Internet of Things, driven and controlled by the machine-learning algorithms of artificial intelligence.

New mechanical technologies like electric cars and robots combined with the executive function capabilities of artificial intelligence are squeezing the human labor market in a pincer grip. New products and processes require new technical skills, while cognitive and control functions that used to be unique to humans are being taken over by self-teaching cyber systems. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) will, by some projections, eliminate 40% of the world’s jobs within 15 years. The speed and direction of change are driving companies to develop in-house strategies for upskilling, reskilling, retraining and new-skilling to “optimize the workforce” by upgrading existing workers or hiring new ones with the speculative skill sets of a market so mercurial that job descriptions written yesterday are obsolete by tomorrow. Economists call this relentless churn “creative destruction.” My father called it putting people out of work.

The skills needed to survive in this performance pressure cooker go beyond traditional degrees and technical competencies to encompass attributes like creativity, interpersonal skills, adaptability, flexibility, and capacity to continue learning. So-called “soft skills” associated with the liberal arts like empathy, cross-cultural competency, critical thinking, teamwork and oral and written communication are regaining value. As machines take over production tasks, as robots become self-teaching and electric cars self-driving, humans have to scramble up the functional pyramid to the higher conceptual ground of process development and problem solving.

The labor value proposition is shifting from implementation to innovation, from productivity to creativity.

Our workforce development system, K-12 and higher education, will be forced to adapt to the volatile demands of this fourth industrial revolution. The foundational language and math skills on which higher order skills depend are more critical than ever for individual survival in the labor market and for our collective survival in the global economic cage fight. It should alarm us that the US ranks 19th in the world in the percentage of 25 to 29 year-olds who have bachelor’s degrees (35.6%). This age group is a bellwether of workforce quality because their tenure in it will be long. Twenty years ago, we were number one. Where will we be twenty years from now?

Heavy industry laid the foundations of its own obsolescence. Blue collar workers built the skyscrapers in which white collar technocrats invented the post-industrial economy.

The mills of the Calumet are producing twice their output of the 1970s with a quarter of the labor force. The jobs don’t look anything like the grimy millrat labor of my dad’s time. Today’s oil and steel workers sit at computer consoles digitally controlling the stills and furnaces. Robots do much of the dirty and dangerous work without gloves or hard hats. Fair trade coffee is served in the cafeteria. No one stops at the diner anymore.

Twilight can be dusk or dawn. It’s dusk for the old industrial workforce, but it can be dawn for a new workforce with the skills required by the new economy. School is starting this week. Nine out of ten of America’s young people are sitting down at desks and terminals in public schools. Fifty million public school students, our workforce in training, are writing the next chapter of our history. Their knowledge and skills—not petroleum or iron ore—are the raw materials of our future. We’d be wise to invest as much capital in their development as Rockefeller and Morgan did in oil and steel.

Changing American Workforce-East Chicago Harbor


“Labor’s Twilight” was first posted on Labor Day 2018. Updated for Labor Day 2019.

Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks.
Matthew Kaplan is a Chicago-based photographer. His work can be viewed at matthewkaplanphotography.com

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