It’s an election year again, and protectionist policies are again being played to a populist drumbeat in Democrat primaries. Facing difficult economic times and a painful housing market downturn, too many Americans are taking the wrong lessons. NAFTA is not the problem!
America has been getting a wakeup call from the world, but far too many are whining and clamoring for more government support instead of responding to the challenge. Many feel that they are entitled to a good standard of living, increasing salaries and increasing benefits. Most workers thought they could learn a skill, find a comfortable career, and work comfortably into retirement. Unfortunately, the world has changed, and too many Americans are desperately trying to hold on to jobs that are rapidly becoming unnecessary.
For the first time in history, anything can be made almost anywhere and sold everywhere. Talented and motivated workforces in India, South Korea and China are just a mouse-click away! These changes aren’t just taking American jobs; they’re also creating jobs. Most of those foreign workers are using American software. Most are drinking Cokes. They watch our TV shows, and they want the brands that we have. As other countries become more successful, they can afford to buy more American goods and services. The weakening dollar has already accelerated our export numbers.
It is true that when manufacturers in the U.S. can’t compete because of high labor costs, some move operations offshore while still others innovate more efficient manufacturing processes. Both strategies can eliminate U.S. jobs. But such changes bring down the cost of the products so more can afford them.
The expanded market for cheaper goods means more people need training to use what they buy, so trainers are hired. Anything purchased must be maintained locally; people are hired to repair and service the new products.
Such changes are painful for people unwilling to learn new skills. Economists call it “churning,” and it has happened over and over again throughout the history of capitalism. Its playing field is now global, and the speed of the churn is faster.
A few years back, Lee Kuan Yew, called by many the “Father of modern Singapore,” made some eye-opening observations about the global economy and America’s role in the world: “I see a very troubling and at the same time exciting new world in which international boundaries can be penetrated without difficulty. The flow of information, of capital cannot be stopped. ... Whether we like it or not, technology has made this a one-world market for labor. Jobs can leapfrog boundaries. But good minds in the world will command very high salaries, very high fees.”
“In the same way, jobs at the lower end of the scale can also be transferred across the globe, and will be,” Yew continued. “And so, whether Americans like it or not, whether Singaporeans like it or not, our lower-end jobs are going to be taken over by our neighbors because they will be able to do these jobs for one-half, sometimes one-quarter the price.... Unions will try to protect themselves and their members’ interests, but their jobs will run out because their companies will be beaten in the international marketplace unless they can make use of cheaper labor elsewhere. … There’s no use perceiving this as a threat because it’s going to happen…either with your participation...or against your wishes.... Ride it. You can’t fight it.”
The American dream is not dead! Wealth is still out there; it is just on the move. Instead of throwing up protectionist walls, we must help Americans meet the challenge of change. As my great uncle on the farms of Illinois used to say, “It’s easiest to ride a horse in the direction it is going.” In short, it’s wise to develop skills that will produce what customers are going to need. If you’re good at something someone needs done, you will do well!
His second advice: “If the horse is dead, get off it!” In practical terms, don’t send around resumes for skills that are no longer needed. Instead, master new competencies or lose out to those who are willing to refocus and retool to take advantage of change.
Instead of whining about the economic cards you have been dealt or waiting for the government to save you from becoming obsolete, develop your own recovery program. In fact, always invest time in your Plan B, a “What I could do next” Plan.
Let me add to my great uncle’s shared wisdom: “Since it’s hard to know if your horse is dying, have at least two horses.” Don’t wait for a career disaster, an economic downturn or a prolonged strike to hit your family! Americans should be investing 5% of their time in their next career at all times. It could mean starting a small business on the side, looking for cross-training opportunities or volunteering to work on a key strategic project. There will always be a need for people who can make a difference where it counts for customers willing to pay!
Many have said, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” Well, you become an old dog when you stop doing new tricks. Welcome to the challenge of lifelong learning, your best insurance policy for the 21st century! Be thankful that in America, there are great educational institutions ready to help you meet that challenge.
When one young woman complained that to do what she wanted to do would require going back to school, I challenged her to take it one course at a time. She complained that if she took it once course at a time, “she’d be 45 by the time she got the degree she needed.”
Having already passed that milestone, I responded, “Optimistically, you will be 45 anyway. You’re either 45 with a degree or you’re 45 without one.” I asked her how long she had been thinking about her decision. When she confided she had been considering it for three years, I said, “You could have been 42! Get on with it!”
Don’t wait for Washington politicians to produce on their empty promises. In these difficult economic times, ensure your own success the old-fashioned American way—by earning it yourself one day at a time.