Everyone thinks jobs are being outsourced; they are, in fact, being desourced. When Mitt Romney claims he will create jobs, when Barak Obama claims the same, when Google, Apple, or Amazon assert they build out the economy, they all overstate. Worse, they ignore the reality that both manufacturing and service jobs are dying. Robots, artificial intelligence, and the new information-at-scale industries all but assure that outcome. The ability to build and sell without humans is already here. I am not saying that these shifts are inherently bad. They may even be inevitable. What we do next is the question. To answer that question, we need to understand the ways humans will be eliminated from manufacturing and service jobs. We need to understand what I call desourcing.
Focus on manufacturing is a distraction, a sideshow; so too is faith in service jobs. A recent New York Times article about Apple, noted that manufacturing accounts for only about eight percent of the U.S. labor force. And, The Atlantic’s Making It in America piece shows how manufacturing is being changed by robots and other automation. According to some, the real engine is service labor “and any recovery with real legs, labor experts say, will be powered and sustained by this segment of the economy.” That is where desourcing comes in. Many talk about the non-career path of service sector jobs. A future of jobs that have low pay and little room to rise is scary and a problem. Amazon explains why that world might be heaven.
The world of low wage, high stress service work is being replaced by automation. Amazon gave up its fight against state taxes, because it is moving to a model of local distribution centers so that it can deliver same-day delivery of goods. According to Slate, Amazon will spend more than $1 billion to build centers all over the U.S. and hire thousands of people for those centers. The real story is that like any company Amazon wants to reduce operation costs; it must automate or perish as Technology Review put it. It will do that, in part, by using robots to handle the goods. Self-driving cars and autonomous stocking clerks are the logical steps after ATMs and self-serve kiosks at movie theaters and grocery stores. I am always amazed at the folks who line up at movie theater ticket windows rather than use the kiosks. A friend said to me that we should walk up to the window to keep those jobs. It is a nice idea, but I think untenable. We all want to move faster and pay less. Welcome to desourcing.
Desourcing means reducing or eliminating humans from the production or service equation. Humans are friction points. More and more we can reduce those points of contact. We no longer need to send work to other humans.
There are many economic questions that are beyond what can be addressed in a short piece. But here are some ideas on which to chew. The returns from this approach are tremendous for the companies that desource. For example, by one account, Apple makes $473,000 per employee; yet “About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year.” So we may satisfy our need for instant gratification as companies reduce their costs, but that money will go to corporate bottom lines. Whether it will really reach the rest of the economy is not so clear precisely because a smart company will invest in desourcing. I suppose at some point companies will have to realize that they need masses who can buy stuff. Yet I think some studies indicate that serving the upper end of the economy works better than serving the masses. In theory, a company may offer goods at lower prices but to do that, it will need lower production costs. And less workers means lower costs.
I am not saying I know what will solve this riddle. I offer desourcing, because I have not seen a satisfying answer to the issue. There may not be one; for we may be still sorting what to do as the digital age takes full hold. As the computer science folks say in early training, “Hello world.”