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Skill will trump sweat in robotic workplace

December 8, 2012 12:10 am

APPLE CEO Tim Cook told NBC's Brian Williams and Bloomburg BusinessWeek on Thursday that the company is bringing back the manufacturing of one of its Mac computers to America in 2013.

The company's formula of contracting work out to China's Foxconn, which hired workers dirt cheap, then had them slave away for long hours under poor conditions, has soured a bit.

There have been riots in factories, and that's been bad for Apple's image. Even Foxconn admitted the need to raise salaries and limit hours.

America's looking better and better.

But, as Forbes points out, that doesn't mean the jobs those Chinese workers are doing on assembly lines are coming back. It's more likely that robots will do that work.

Forbes concludes that this means no jobs for Americans.

I don't think so. Will those robots be built in America? And will they be built by other robots? And who will build the robots that build the robots? And the robots that build the robots that build the robots?

And who will maintain those robots?

That's where American manufacturing jobs are headed today.

People who work in plants on assembly lines aren't like Rosie the Riveter anymore. They aren't depending on wrenches. They're using computers. The jobs are better and productivity is higher.

As Steve Jobs once told President Obama, those jobs Apple outsourced to China aren't coming back. And the truth is that it's best that they don't.

America's future isn't in backbreaking, low-skilled labor. It's in workers with the technical skills to design and build robots and other high-tech machinery and to maintain them.

In truth, neither is China's future. Foxconn itself is planning to install a million robots in its plants. We have to beat the Chinese to the punch.

We can't go backward. And we shouldn't want to. And we can't and shouldn't fear technological advancement.

So yes, Apple's plans are indeed good news for America. It seems likely that other companies will follow its lead for the same reasons.

We just have to get ready in the next few years to provide workers with the skills necessary to make it pay off and reverse the tide of outsourcing. If we take the right steps in terms of training, the tide coming in could become a tsunami.

Part of the skills gap that's seeing 3 million jobs unfilled in this country is attributed by some manufacturers to young people not being anxious to train for these jobs. They think of them as being the same kind of mind-numbing factory assembly-line work their grandparents did. They are not. And Apple's return may be just what's needed to drive that point home.

Maybe, just maybe, the iPhone 7 or 8 will be made in America. Some components already are. Maybe more can be.

And if a future iPhone is assembled by robots, that's great--as long as the robots themselves are designed, made and maintained by American workers.

Cynics say this is merely a PR move by Apple. Even if it is, it could be an opportunity for us to turn it into much more than that.

Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163

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