Why Tech Can’t Replace Manufacturing

[Author’s Note: This is adapted from a tweetstorm I posted recently.]

Many people yearn for the return of American manufacturing. Other people correctly point out that manufacturing is never coming back. The latter argue that we need to focus on creating new jobs, new kinds of jobs, and they point to the modern tech industry for this.

But the tech industry isn’t a present-day equivalent of our bygone manufacturing economy. It can’t replace it.

Consider: In the ’50s, a man who never finished high school could get a job working a factory line, and that job paid enough for them to raise a family and own a home. Nothing much, no frills, but a decent quality of life. They could learn new skills on the job and advance to more skilled positions. They could have a career and retire in some comfort.

Name one job in today’s tech industry that you can get without a high school diploma. Name one tech job that you can get without a college degree.

The barrier to entry for the tech industry is much higher than it was for the manufacturing industry. It requires a much higher level of education.

Access to higher education is directly determined by a person’s economic status. Poor people can’t get into college as easily as middle and upper class people, regardless of academic performance. Moreover, the quality of a person’s primary education and their access to technology is also directly determined by their economic status.

How is someone supposed to get into tech when they grew up in a home that never had a computer or internet access, got sent to a crappy school, and can’t afford college?

Let’s say a kid living a poor neighborhood goes to their local library to take coding and tech classes. Let’s say they show tremendous natural aptitude for this kind of work. Let’s say they learn everything they can about coding, programming, design, etc.

They still have substantially less access to technology in their daily lives compared to their middle and upper class compatriots, which means they’ll always lack hands-on experience compared to most other people competing for tech jobs. They’ll always lag a couple of years behind their middle and upper class compatriots in access to the newest technology and devices.

No matter how smart and talented the poor kid is, they’ll always be working at a practical deficit.

This is all a moot point in any case: the poor kid is still saddled with a shockingly inadequate primary education and they still can’t afford to go to college. No matter how smart and talented they are, the likelihood that they’ll be able to find a job in the tech industry is vanishingly small.

None of this has anything to do with a person’s ability. The modern tech industry is out of reach for most people living in poverty. Tech simply isn’t an option for most poor people.

The middle of the 20th century saw greater economic mobility than any other period in American history. More people worked their way out of poverty in the mid-20th century in America than ever before or since.

People don’t want a return to manufacturing per se. They want a return to that level of economic mobility.

Manufacturing offered substantial opportunities for poor people to better their circumstances. The modern tech industry doesn’t offer those same opportunities to the people who need them most—barriers to entry make it intrinsically antagonistic to poor people.

The modern tech industry won’t deliver the jobs we need most right now: jobs that help people living in poverty work their way out of it. Tech can’t provide meaningful economic mobility.

Of course, I have no better ideas, so who am I to preach?

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