Friday, May 22, 2015

The Declared Presidential Candidates on Jobs? What a Novel Idea!

“For a presidential campaign that has started so early, it’s striking how little most of the candidates want to engage with major issues of the day, let alone the future.” – Thomas Friedman, “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder,” The New York Times, May 20, 2015

No kidding, Tom.

It was a simple project, or so it seemed.  For this morning’s blog post, I would look up the positions of the eight officially committed presidential contenders, see what they had to say on jobs, and then analyze, compare, and critique it. 

It didn't work out that way.

I used the New York Times’s quick summary of who has actually declared themselves in – it’s at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/us/elections/2016-presidential-candidates.html?ref=politics, and is updated with each new candidate – and went down the list, starting with Ted Cruz.  His website was easy to find, and among his clearly accessible list of issues was “Jobs & Opportunity.”  He only had one paragraph on what he wanted to do with American employment, but his bullet points on his related efforts in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere printed out to three pages.  I wasn't too impressed – on jobs he advocates little other than ending “Obamacare, an overreaching federal government, and out of control spending,” and then just waiting, I guess – but expected to have eight printouts to compare. 

I did not.

The next name was Rand Paul, who seems to have cultivated an image like that of his father Ron’s – outspoken and full of ideas, not to mention libertarian.  I knew the last one was nonsense – he fails the most basic requirement for being a libertarian in 2015, favoring marijuana legalization – but his website put the first and probably the second in doubt as well.  He had issues, in fact 18 of them, but most were routine Republican qualifiers, such as “Israel,” “Second Amendment,” and “Sanctity of Life,” the last referring, of course, to zygotes and not to victims of our bombs or questionably condemned criminals.  He had nothing at all under jobs or the economy – I know because I looked, thinking I had missed something, four times.

On to Marco Rubio, the Republican given the best chance in sportsbook.ag of the six declared ones to win the election.  He had only four issues on his website, two on foreign policy, one a pledge to never raise taxes (George H. W. Bush, are you laughing?), and one stating that marriage laws belonged to the states.  Perhaps he considers these four things the most important for Americans, but more likely two would scrape to make the top ten and the others would not be close.  Strangely, he did mention the economy – on his “Rubio Doctrine” where he said that we should physically prevent other countries from impeding commerce.  As for the needs of the people in Cleveland, San Antonio, and Miami… well, not this time. 

Next was Ben Carson.  I read his book and was impressed by his level of thinking, and maybe had showed that in his list of 10 issues, but once more the economy wasn't there.  Don’t we know that his stated need to “protect the Second Amendment” (from what efforts in progress?) sets him aside from no candidate in his party?  His staff must think we don’t, and again, they give us nary a clue as to how he might reduce our shortage of 17.9 million jobs.

So you’re disappointed in Carson?  Try Carly Fiorina!  An examination of her official website, her online face to the electorate, showed – get this – no views on issues at all!  Why, Carly, when your poll numbers belong under a microscope, can’t you commit yourself on anything?  Your illustrious corporate career must have given you some ideas, so why won’t you share them?  Are you sitting on your lead?

Then on to Mike Huckabee, who has been committal enough to engender more controversy for what he thinks than any of the five above.  His site includes 13 issues, including the usual suspects of “Israel” and “2nd Amendment,” and also “Values,” but nothing on either employment or our economy – “Tax Reform, advocating a flat-rate “Fair Tax,” and “Spending & Debt,” devoted to other issues, don’t qualify.  

Over to the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton, as expected and consistent with her past non-statements, has nothing to say.  Her site is completely devoid of issues.  At least she, with sportsbook.ag odds of just under 50% to win the whole thing as it is, has reason to keep her cards close to her chest – for now.

The eighth candidate, Bernie Sanders, did what I thought every candidate should have done.  On his site he has a listing of “12 Steps Forward,” no fewer than six of which address American employment.  Four I can’t agree with at all, specifically “growing the trade union movement” as if that will create jobs, “raising the minimum wage” on the basis that every position should independently and comfortably support at least the person filling it, “pay equity for women workers” based on results instead of laws, and protectionist “trade policies that benefit American workers.”  Of the other two I don’t care much about “creating worker co-ops” – let organizations that want to do that go right ahead – but the last I have been calling for, “rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.”  Sanders calls for “a massive jobs program rebuilding our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges,” and I don’t see why others don’t openly support the same;  the work must be done somehow, and conservatives, with their generally greater business investments, will be damaged at least as much as liberals if the United States continues to deteriorate in this way. 

Will the remaining expected candidates do better?  Will the second through seventh people above, if they are not doing well in the campaign, commit themselves more?  Will Sanders or someone else put the jobs issue in his rivals’ faces by stating that he has a plan while others do not?  I hope so, but I’m sure not betting the baby shoe money.    


“A recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades” – Friedman again, as above.  And that doesn’t even include those lost to foreign workers.  Let’s work on this one, candidates. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Merits and Drawbacks of a $15 per Hour Minimum for Fast-Food Workers

If the New York Times, Washington Post, and Salon are to be believed, there is a groundswell of support for a federal $15 hourly minimum wage for those working in fast-food restaurants.  Would that be a good idea or a bad one?

Let’s start by looking at some facts. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2012 there were 2,969,300 people in the subcategory “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.”  That includes employees in other types of restaurants, but, as we will see, most are in McDonalds and the like.  Also in 2012, those workers received an average of $8.84 per hour, which in another source, a Salon article by Martin Ford, came through as $8.69.  About half of such employees worked part-time in 2012. 

The above statistics are generally consistent and noncontroversial, but, when dealing with the composition of fast-food workers, the sources dramatically part company.  The head of government affairs at the National Restaurant Association claimed in 2013 that over half of them were teenagers.  In contrast, New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently said that 70% were over 20, and, amazingly, over 66% were both raising children and their family’s main breadwinners.  To go higher, Ford’s article claimed 90% aged 20 or older with an average of 35, the second echoed in a Robert Reich Salon column.  Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which could clear up this confusion, has no number of its own.

In addition to their possibly correct view of fast-food workers being older and usually supporting families, the side wanting a higher minimum makes four main points.  The first is that the companies are generally very profitable.  According to The Huffington Post, the two largest fast-food employers, McDonalds and Yum! Brands, the latter including KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, combined for $7 billion net income in an unspecified recent year.  Those two companies have 1.1 million of those 2.9 million American workers, and the next largest eight, Subway, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dairy Queen, Sonic, Dominos, and Little Caesars, employ another 1.1 million.  That makes an excellent argument, that fast-food workers, unlike, say, wait staff or short-order cooks, are retained by national companies we have heard of, instead of local places with less profitability. 

The second through fourth points are more debatable.  Reich started a recent column by saying that “a basic moral principle that most Americans agree on is no one who works full time should be in poverty, nor should their family,” phrased carefully but doubtful on further reflection.  He also said that increasing jobs raises demand, which in turn creates more positions:  true, but the end does not justify the means.  And, perhaps most controversially, other articles have claimed that such employers actually cost the federal government money, since some of their workers are eligible for public assistance;  that is demonstrably false, since they have no obligation, legal or otherwise, to provide jobs at all. 

Five ideas are significant to the other side.  First, demand for fast-food work is still strong, with Ford mentioning, in particular, that a 2011 McDonalds effort to hire 50,000 new employees in one day precipitated over 1,000,000 applications, “a ratio that made landing a McJob more of a statistical long shot than getting accepted at Harvard.”  Second, even Cuomo admitted that average pay for fast-food workers had increased after inflation, on average, since 2000.  Third, such positions typically come with free food, which is not counted in wages and can help anyone struggling financially.  Fourth, automation is on the way.  Ford gave an example of a company now developing machines producing hamburgers from beginning to end, cutting well into the $9 billion in annual American burger-making expenses.

Fifth, and maybe the strongest point of all, is this:  Why is $15 per hour going to be enough?  The arguments for that level have been couched in terms of assuring “a living wage.”  But how is $30,000 sufficient for someone, even with no dependents, to live in Manhattan or San Francisco?  If the effort gets what its organizers want, $15 will probably be only the beginning, with higher expectations cancelling much of any perception of improvement. 


So which side has more merit?  I have a strong bias against forcing businesses to do things that would hurt employment, which a forced $15 per hour minimum for almost three million American workers would do to some extent or another.  The same thing goes for two other things Reich also calls for in those columns:  universal child care and paid family and medical leave.  If employers want to provide much higher pay and these other benefits, they are not barred from doing so.  There is a large difference between helping individuals in crisis, by providing liberal food stamp and unemployment benefits to name just two ways, and attacking the interest of companies to provide work, which, during a permanent jobs crisis, is especially damaging.  When we get to the point where existing safety-net measures are not enough, we will need a guaranteed income or other permanent solution, which may be a gigantic upheaval.  It does not help us to impede business’s ability to delay that.  Until then – and it may be a long time until Americans are willing to seriously consider anything strong enough to solve the problem – we need to realize that companies are not our opponents but our partners.  

Friday, May 8, 2015

AJSN: America Reaches Post-Recession Low Job Shortage, Though Still 17.9 Million

I saw two almost conflicting pieces of speculation about the American employment situation this week.  The first was that we might be in a recession, since the economy shrunk last quarter.  The second was a New York Times view that net new jobs created might go back to the mid-200,000’s, where it’s been for most of the past year.  We don’t quite know about the first, but we discovered this morning that the second was correct. 

April’s Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a net gain of 223,000 positions, with the adjusted jobless rate down to 5.4 percent.  The latter, along with the unadjusted figure of 5.1%, reached new post-recession lows.  As did the American Job Shortage Number.

The AJSN dropped, almost entirely due to official unemployment falling.  About 700,000 fewer Americans were technically jobless in April than in March, meaning that, taking the 90% share of them estimated to actually take work if it were readily available, they could consume about 644,000 fewer new open positions.  The 80% portion of those wanting work but not looking in the previous year was down 140,000, but latent demand from those desiring a job without being available now, estimated at 30%, added 44,100 to the AJSN, with the other categories affecting it little. 

Overall, the AJSN came out as follows:
      

AJSN 
APRIL 2015
Total
Latent Demand %
Latent Demand Total
Unemployed
7,966,000
90
7,169,400
Discouraged
756,000
90
680,400
Family Responsibilities
231,000
30
69,300
In School or Training
224,000
50
112,000
Ill Health or Disability
175,000
10
17,500
Other
729,000
30
218,700
Did Not Search for Work In  Previous Year
3,144,000
80
2,515,200
Not Available to Work Now
837,000
30
251,100
Do Not Want a Job
87,616,000
5
4,380,800
Non-Civilian, Institutionalized, and Unaccounted For, 15+
9,303,810
10
930,381
American Expatriates
7,600,000
20
1,520,000
TOTAL


17,864,781


The four key secondary numbers were mixed.  The count of Americans officially unemployed for 27 weeks or more fell 100,000 to 2.5 million, the same drop in the number working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting a full-time position but not finding it, now 6.6 million.  The two indicators showing how commonplace working actually is remained similar and range-bound, with civilian labor force participation up 0.1% to 62.8% and the employment to population ratio steady at 59.3%.  Average wages went up a weak 3 cents per hour, or about 1.5% annually.

Compared with April 2014, the AJSN is 839,000 lower.  More than that was from latent demand from those officially jobless, down just over one million, offset slightly mainly by those fillable by American expatriates.    

One thing behind the numbers is particularly important this time.  April is consistently the month with the lowest average unemployment.  That is why the gap between seasonally adjusted and unadjusted figures is so large, with the unadjusted ones such as the AJSN looking better, all things equal, than any other time of the year.  Another item worth considering is that March weather was, generally, unusually bad.  That usually tends to take the edge off both sales and new hires, and push some of each into the next month.

Given these special significances, where are we now?  It was not a bad month, in context, with net job creation making March look like an anomaly.  Yet latent work demand from those not technically unemployed was down only 73,000, meaning that, with the seasonal drop in official joblessness, 60% of readily available jobs would go to those with other statuses.  That also is a post-recession extreme, and calls for public policy to cater more to the needs of other sets of non-working Americans. 


Yes, the turtle did step forward this month.  Not a huge stride, but clearly in the right direction.  Whether its progress is now good enough is for you to decide.      

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Baltimore Riots: We All Lost

The largest reasonably important national news this week has been the riots in Baltimore.  Ostensibly started by the questionably-caused death of citizen Freddie Gray in police custody, they grew into a remarkably widespread attack on not only the law enforcement officers themselves, but on cars, businesses, and others.  Unlike after similar events last year in Ferguson, Missouri, moderate liberals in the press are not apologizing for those destroying property and attacking people.  On Tuesday morning the BBC, in its worldwide Morning Edition and News Hour programs, showed little sympathy for the rioters, with air time going to local people saying things similar to “we’ve built up this city, and they are trying to tear it down – they want it to be better, but they can’t have it both ways.”  The conservative side, headed of course by Fox News, kept more to the facts – reports from the streets, updates about the curfews, and interviews with police and other authority figures.  In the meantime, helped by 2,000 National Guard troops and 1,000 more law enforcement officers, the violence has ran its course.  So what can we say about it?

First, any idea of the rioting being justified protests of the aggrieved is without merit.  Many if not most of the looters were juveniles, so weren’t old enough to have known racial problems as much as they may have thought they did.  Second, the looting and vandalism is without any coherent purpose – it’s more akin to that popping up after significant sports results.  Third, in the case of a localized attack, abstract inequality, or those elsewhere having more money and better opportunities, cannot be to blame. 

On the other side, the lack of jobs is certainly a contributing problem.  In Work’s New Age, I documented how that caused neighborhoods to deteriorate, when people lost the ability to support themselves and their families.  It still does, and the permanent crisis rates to get worse, not better. 

However, the rioters, and their supporters among those now passing for civil rights leaders, had their methodology all wrong.  If there is ever an excuse for rioting, previous actions by the police aren’t it.  Running from the authorities, for people with nothing to immediately worry about, shows execrable judgment.  Those who think they or others have been wronged by the authorities should wait until the immediate situation has ended and then file lawsuits, file formal complaints, talk with the press, and so on.  As for the advantages of action, we can only imagine how much better West Baltimore would be if those stealing, destroying, and injuring were to focus that intensity on working for more jobs instead.  The most effective, longest lasting, and most broadly appealing civil disobedience tactics are the nonviolent ones – a protest march through those same Baltimore streets, coupled by demands on all fronts for an investigation into Gray’s death, would have gathered supporters from all over the political spectrum, along with positive attention from the authorities being questioned.  Americans do not like punks, bullies, and looters, be they running amuck through the streets or wearing blue uniforms, and race is hardly the entire issue.  No matter what else you think, the two wrongs of poor living conditions and street violence do not make a right.


Sadly, almost everybody lost this week in Baltimore.  Innocent car and business owners lost property.  Innocent police officers and other people were injured.  The American racial impasse was cemented even more in place.  Our black President, while properly calling the rioters “thugs” and “criminals” while acknowledging problems with police behavior, managed once again to please neither his base, who wanted him to focus on the latter, nor others, wishing for him to mention only the former.  Our country lost in the eyes of others.  The Al Sharptons, Jesse Jacksons and Cornel Wests may think they profited, but with the common sense view of seeing the rioters as no more than punks carrying the day, they were defeated too.  The thieves and looters, with no prospects of being equated with 1960s freedom riders, will gain only longer criminal records.  Even the Baltimore Orioles ended up moving some of their home games at cost of both local and overall attendance, after, bizarrely, playing one in Camden Yards without spectators.  And the rest of us, wanting civil rights related progress we can support – instead of racial divisiveness, unfair press coverage (where are the stories about whites dying in police custody?), demands to ignore cultural differences at least partially responsible for bad outcomes, and bipartisan acceptance of the jobs crisis as an American problem – came out behind yet again.     

Friday, April 24, 2015

Through Even These Good Times, Technology’s Effect on Jobs Continues

It’s been quiet.  The American work situation, except for conservatives emphasizing its bad aspects to carp about Obama and liberals trying to use its good side to push a minimum wage higher than latent demand for employment can justify, has just about dropped out of the press.  There haven’t been many reports of automation-related work losses.  However, we've been seeing technology-progress accounts that effectively predict them.

One was published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal.  Titled “These Robots Serve Up Cocktails, but Can They Tell if You’ve Drunk Too Much,” it gives the status of something I predicted two years ago, in Choosing a Lasting Career, when I gave bartenders poorer prospects than other food service jobs, pointing out that automated drink mixing and serving would not only save labor but reduce legal liability, and that a “thoroughly automated bar” would be around long before the book’s 2033 horizon.  In the article, we learn about a variety of these cocktail robots (an already established name), and how they are being developed to be more interesting than just generic machines, with one a “rocket-shaped device with a large red start button that releases steam,” another with flashing lights, and one more with “plastic crystals and a fake flame.”  Giving them entertainment-machine bells and whistles may help with customer acceptance, a potential problem I noted before, and they are already in use for customer-facing applications on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, along with, no doubt, large numbers of service bars.  The story makes clear that cocktail robots figure to proliferate, and replace many jobs.

A second article came out Thursday, in the Detroit Free Press.  It was a note on one area on which has strengthened since 2013, self-driving cars.  That year I gave taxi drivers and chauffeurs Very Good prospects for lasting 20 years, and said they had a “low automation threat.”  The story described discussion opening the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, in which a panel speaker, and prominent industry figure, talked about the need to reduce the one million-plus people dying annually, worldwide, due to car crashes caused by driver error.  The software for self-driving cars has been in development for over a year now, and although perfecting it has been challenging, another panelist said that laws, not technology, could ultimately hold back its use.  It is clear that driverless cars will be ready, and demonstrably an improvement over human-operated ones, before the decade is out, meaning that anyone who drives for a living may have his or her livelihood imperiled sometime in the next one.

Third, there was a story on Sunday’s New York Times, “The Machines Are Coming,” by Zeynep Tufekci.  It was not chosen for publication in the Times’s op-ed section by presenting the old issue of automation costing jobs, but for its reminder that work replaced by technology will not all be at or near the minimum-wage level.  Despite its future-leaning title, capabilities the article attributes to current machines include diagnosing medical test results, emotion detection, making hiring decisions, and providing accurate and spoken responses to people calling help desks.  There have already been many cases of what we would call good jobs being swept away by automation, especially in electronically-compatible areas of analysis that turn out to be completely algorithmic, and evidently there will be many more. 

These three articles show that further technology-caused job losses are, if not with clear timetables, on the way.  A major point Tufekci makes is that rising automation takes away workers’ power, in ways such as facilitating employers to “”optimize” worker schedules in a way that devastates ordinary lives.”  That brings us a fourth piece from the past week, a column by Robert Reich.  Its title, “America’s “flexible” economy is making worker’s lives hell,” published in Salon, nearly says it all, with its contents describing how software helps companies determine when employees are not needed – information some, such as Target and The Gap, now use to call off workers only minutes before their starting times.  The idea of what Reich said could be called “just-in-time scheduling,” “on-call staffing,” or “on-demand work” is nothing new – I experienced it, along with many of my scheduled work times being cut short, in a restaurant job 30 years ago, but the practice now seems more widespread, and fits with the ethics of the sharing economy in which income is irregular. 


What we can learn from these articles is not that automation will cost employment.  We knew that already.  It is that, despite relatively peaceful times on the number of jobs, technology, and our ways we are using it to that end, are still marching along.   

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

AJSN: As Unemployment Has Fallen, Latent Demand for Jobs from Others Has Risen

A week ago Friday, the most recent American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, showed that almost 18.6 million more American positions could be quickly filled, if getting one were routine and easy.  I noted that, although the number of those officially unemployed dropped once again, the count of people with other statuses, other than jobless or working, was staying about even.  As a result, in March 2015, if jobs were truly plentiful, only 42% of them would be filled by people technically unemployed. 

How has that changed since the AJSN started in August 2012?  Here are a series of charts to show that. 

To start, this graph recaps the drop in official joblessness during the past 31 months.  It has been quite steep, as made clear by the trend line which evens out seasonal effects.  Note that the unemployment rates used here, as well as all other numbers in this post, are seasonally unadjusted:



The AJSN includes shares of 11 different employment statuses.  In the case of those officially jobless, it assumes about 90% would take readily available work.  Taking 90% of the actual number of unemployed, month-by-month, gets the following:



As above, the number of positions that could be filled by those technically jobless has fallen, irregularly but ultimately consistently, from over 11.8 million in January 2013 to 7.5 million in December 2014. 

Although the number of officially unemployed has fallen a great deal, that is not the case for the most significant other work statuses.  Between 600,000 and 1 million Americans, during this time period, have reported that they would like to have jobs, but think there is too little a chance of actually getting one to justify search efforts.  As per this chart, their number has also fallen, but not as much:
  



A similar and much larger category is those who do not report discouragement, but have put themselves out of the technically jobless group by not looking for at least a year.  Although unemployment as such has dropped, their numbers, and accordingly the AJSN share of 80% of them, has stayed about the same, as follows:
 


The largest employment set of people is those claiming no interest in working.  Many, especially those over 80 years old, are firmly fixed to that conviction, but some are not, as has been shown by the count of this group sometimes falling.  The AJSN’s conservative share of 5% of them taking readily available jobs shows an increase of about 275,000 more positions fillable by those in this group:
  


When we combine all the categories other than officially unemployed, the number who might work has gone up, per the trend line, almost 1 million:




Here is a pictorial view of how the shares of the AJSN from official joblessness and other statuses has changed:




That brings us to what has happened to the share of the AJSN from the above:



This trend line starts out at about 52% of American latent job demand as of August 2012, and ends up at about the 42% actually reached by last month’s data. 


It is easy to see what is happening here.  When we think about who would fill open jobs, we should know that those officially unemployed would take only a plurality of them, not a majority any more.  The need for new opportunities goes way further.  That trend is continuing, as the numbers of those with other statuses, despite more work being out there, continue to rise.  That is why we are much farther from full employment than many think, and, accordingly, why public policy should still be encouraging job creation.  Therefore, by inference, these charts have bad things to say about both higher interest rates and mandated higher wages, among other viewpoints.  The jobs crisis may have dropped off the headlines, but it is continuing – under the surface.    

Friday, April 10, 2015

3D Printing and its Jobs – Oversold, On Schedule, or Just Delayed?

Consider the following, and note they are in chronological order:

Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale.  It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did...  Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing.  But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. – "Print me a Stradivarius – How a new manufacturing technology will change the world," Economist Technology, February 10, 2011.

The prediction that 3-D printers will become a part of our daily lives is happening much sooner than anyone anticipated. – Nick Bilton, “Disruptions:  On the Fast Track to Routine 3-D Printing,” The New York Times, February 17, 2013

Americans expect access to almost-free drinking water, clean air, a fine highway system, and at least some measure of personal safety – it may well come to pass that food and shelter, both possibly provided by 3D printers, and medical care, provided by software-driven robots, will be added to that list.  – I wrote this around September 2013

Are we expecting too much from these 3-D printers? – Title of article by Christopher Gregory, The New York Times, August 11, 2014

Items printed from a 3-D printer are unlikely to ever match the quality and strength and surface finish of mass manufactured goods… Printing is amazing… but do we print out our newspapers every morning on our inkjet printers? – Nick Allen, “3-D Printers are No Rival for Mass Production,” The New York Times, August 11, 2014

Gartner recently said that worldwide sales of 3-D printers will be about 217,000 units in 2015.  By contrast, in the United States alone, shipments of regular printers are typically about 24 million units a year. – Quentin Hardy, “HP Unveils Plan to Make 3-D Printing an Everyday Thing,” The New York Times, October 29, 2014

What’s happening here?

As the above sequence implies, once 3D printing began getting attention outside the technical community, it seemed that it would be so significant that it was almost scary.  Its machines could be producing just about everything, at home, in the office, and in what once were people-dense factories.  Not only price but speed would improve astronomically, and everything from hamburgers to skyscrapers, all with superb quality as well as unbeatable cost, would come out of the things.  And all of this would arrive stunningly quickly even by recent technology standards.  Although one estimate from last fall had 275 companies working on 3D printing as of four years ago, the 217,000 production could well have turned out to be close to that 24 million.

Now it is 2015, and, some real medical-related successes, a modest set of other niches, and a lot of gee-whiz stunts such as building a house notwithstanding, we’re still waiting.  Why, when 3D printers can now cost as little as $200?  I see four related reasons:

First, the printers now lack a killer app that would put them in ordinary people’s homes.  True, the novelty of making small things you can show off to people, and sometimes even use, is fun, but it isn’t enough to justify even the new lower prices, not to mention the cost of materials and supplies.  The closest they have is their physical prototype capability, which works of course superbly with CAD, but that’s not for the rank and file.

Second, large-scale use, as Allen wrote above, is not cost-effective.  Even if its expenditures were further slashed, the time 3D printing takes is still a huge problem for making large quantities of almost anything.  That and the first point mean that its major uses, for a while anyway, will be for small numbers of things, and otherwise around the fringes of routine manufacturing.

Third, while the technology is extremely promising, its real value may turn out to be, fast recent progress notwithstanding, far in the future.  Larry Niven’s science fiction stories set in 2800 or so referred to an organic soup of some sort, from which organs and other body structures were made.  That has already started, with replacement limbs, primitive though they may be by future standards, made that way.  One responder to the Gregory article above mentioned how much 3D printing will facilitate both the cost and the practice of space travel.  Those are two massive reasons to keep developing knowledge, and they provide reasons for companies to continue with it despite the return being maybe decades off, but neither offers widespread or extensive value now.

Fourth, and probably the most important to understand why expectations have lagged, is that when we were becoming aware of 3D printing we didn’t think much about exactly how it would be transformative.  I, for one, plead guilty to becoming intoxicated with the concept without projecting either what capability would arrive when, or what, after the novelty wore off, would get people to keep buying it. 


So how and when will 3D printing affect American employment?  It should contribute positions, mostly in design, maintenance, and research and development for the next 20 years or so, even with some of these and virtually all manufacturing being done in other countries.  After 2035 or so it will eliminate many, many more.   With that said, though, there is no new field, and certainly not anything else electronic, that projects to add more United States jobs over the next two decades.