Last week I was lucky to join a tour of the big Volvo plant just outside the heart of Gothenburg. It’s a massive campus: almost a town of its own–Volvo Torslanda. After dropping Simon off at school, I walked down to the harbor, jumped on the Red Express, and headed to the Volvo Cars Visitor Centre. The bus runs southwest along the harbor until turning north, crossing the landmark Älvsborgsbron, the 45-meter high bridge that crosses the Göta river that runs through Gothenburg (hence Göteborg). About half an hour later, after stops at Volvo Torslanda RA, Volvo Torslanda PVH, Volvo Torslanda PV, Volvo IT, and before stops at Volvo City and Volvo Torslanda TK, I landed at Volvohallen (notice a theme?). My aim was to make some contacts for future conversations. I wanted to see how Volvo represented itself at the center. And I hoped to maybe talk my way onto a tour while I was out there. I managed to accomplish all of that. I’ll have more on all of that later.
For the moment I wanted to share some observations from the factory tour in particular. There’s been a lot of attention paid to factory workers in developed countries in the past year, especially in the United States. By one reckoning, it was the pro-Trump shift of (former) factory workers along the Rust Belt–Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania–that put that political Titanic in the White House. So there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the decline of manufacturing in the United States and the political implications. I’m not going to dive into the debate over who Trump voters are. I’ll say that I think they’re a diverse lot: the ones I know are an ideologically diverse group, even if they’re on the very conservative side of the spectrum. I don’t think they were all driven by racism; I know that some of them were. In terms of wealth (and in contrast to the common discussion about them), they were above average for the United States; but some were unemployed former factory workers. And I know that for lots of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, and others, the call for more attention to the plight of middle-class white men is tough to stomach. Compared to lots of other groups, that last group is doing better and faces fewer obstacles going forward.
The piece that to date provides the best summary of my own view of the mass politics of Trump is this piece in the NY Times by Thomas Edsall. A key passage is this:
“In political terms, the workers who experience the highest costs from industrial automation fit the crucial Trump voter demographic: white non-college voters, disproportionately male, whose support for the Republican nominee surged from 2012 to 2016….”
In essence, Edsall argues that latent negative attitudes about minorities and foreigners were given new breath by economic misery in just enough corners of the country to put Trump over the electoral college precipice. The title of the piece is what connects it to my thoughts from the Volvo tour: “Robots Can’t Vote, but They Helped Elect Trump.” The lead picture is of robotic welders at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. It looks a lot like what I saw at Volvo.
The last time I spent significant time in a factory was as a college student at Murray State University, in rural western Kentucky. At 19, I was excited to land a job at Briggs and Stratton, the lawn mower manufacturer. Like blood banks, sperm banks, and high-fee/ low-service deposit banks, Briggs and Stratton was in Murray because of a steady supply of relatively low-skilled labor, some of them normal adults (some of them not so normal adults…) and lots of college students to fill in the gaps. There was also a supply of various kinds of engineers and business majors from Murray State to keep the place running. As I recall, the pay was $7.25 an hour, which was by far the best pay you could find as a college student. The federal minimum wage was $4.75 when I started.
I still have vivid images of the plant. We made the small engines for push mowers: 3-5 horsepower, or so. I remember you clocked in at the ground level and then opened the door to the factory floor, which was one story down in a basement. Above your head there was a constantly moving line of hooks that carried the increasingly complete engines in a maze around to different stations. The floor of the plant was shiny concrete. Everything else was a light olive green.
Over the few years I worked there, I worked on two basic assembly lines: gas tanks and carburetors (a word that I hadn’t learned how to spell, as writing this post showed me). When I worked 24 hours/week, I put the bottoms of gas tanks through an oven. It was a four-person job: two to load, two to unload. Stamping the tank tops was a two-person job, slapping plates on an octagonal, rotating machine and pulling off the tops once the came back around, stamped, washed, and cooled. I eventually switched to the 35-hour/week line that made carburetors. It was a line of about 12 people, including two foremen, so roughly 10 different stations. We rotated every hour, usually toggling between two stations.
I liked working there. I liked the money, but I liked going to work. Nearly every person I knew who worked (besides my teachers) was a factory worker. My father worked in a uranium enrichment plant. His father worked in a paper mill. My maternal grandfather worked in a chemical plant. All had made good livings, all supported families with those jobs, and all conveyed a no-nonsense work ethic: get a job, do that job, and, more subtly, don’t get too caught up in that job. It felt respectable to my working-class sensibilities. I liked that the job involved tangible outputs. I once worked through lunch to build up extra parts for our line so that we could break the company record for our line. That accomplishment earned our line a notice of accomplishment for one day on the digital billboard in the cafeteria. It earned me personally bewildered looks from my co-workers.
What mostly stands out in my memories, however, are the people I worked with. Some were fellow college students. Especially on the 35-hour/week line, most were just regular folks working for a living. Some had planned to make a career there, some had not. Some were happy, some were not. Some were sober, some were not.
For that reason, what stood out to me when we entered the Volvo plant was the lack of people. That’s not to say that no one works there. In fact, some 4,800 people work there. And I wasn’t able to tour the final assembly part of the plant, which is probably more heavily peopled than the chassis assembly section that I toured. But the Torslanda plant cranked out some 234,000 cars last year, according to our tour guide, 60 cars an hour, 1 car a minute. Seen another way, that’s only about 50 people employed for every car produced.
Those kinds of numbers would lead me to expect lots of people. Instead, there are a few people here and there, occasionally feeding orange robotic arms and more often standing and watching to make sure they’re working properly. Imagine a huge hall full of these orange arms:
The illustration below does a better job of conveying the look of the process. (Credit: Chalmers Technical University.)
Note the lack of people in the picture above. And notice the robots in the illustration below. That’s a lot of robots. The feeling of watching it all happen is amazing, bordering on eery. The people in this scenario stand outside that cage and watch as the Orange Arms spring to life, spot welding cars together. These stations all work inside cages; people aren’t even allowed in while they’re working. If a door opens, all operations cease immediately. It’s as if they’re positively hostile to people.
The robots are big, heavy pieces of machinery. They are nearly silent. And yet they move with amazing precision, stability, and speed. I made a lot more noise stamping the tops of gasoline tanks for 3.4 horsepower lawnmower engines than they do welding together the pieces of a chassis.
The pinnacle of it all, for me, was watching as the robots attached the side panels to the floor of the car. We watched from our little tour train as a car’s floor floated above our heads. It reached an elevator and was brought down to about head height. As it came down, two arms picked up the side panels and brought them up to be mounted. The pieces then glided to the next station. All of a sudden 12 arms (by my count) seemed to come to life and started welding the pieces together. In under 2 minutes, it was done–side panels attached–and moving on to the next stage.
As we were watching this, a long, low-slung yellow “truck” rolled by us, green lights blinking. The tour guide noted that there was no driver. It was a delivery truck, using GPS to guide itself to the correct bay, where robots would automatically load it with parts that had been ordered elsewhere in the plant. It would then make the return trip. It was a small taste of a remarkably complex and, to me, endlessly fascinating, system of production. It prompted a lot of thought about the politics of manufacturing and jobs.
Here are my takeaways for the moment.
- I see why politicians are excited to get automobile manufacturing plants. They’re big, shiny, and clean (these days), and employ lots of people. Jobs are important. Good paying jobs are important. Good paying jobs that are accessible to people with a wide variety of skills are really important. Automobile manufacturing offers all of that, to a certain extent. I see why the entire southeast United States competes to attract car production.
- I also have seen first-hand that politicians can become borderline obsessed with automobile manufacturing. I went on a tour of Germany a few years ago, riding along as a country-expert with various state-level politicians and business people from North Carolina. While in Berlin, we had a meeting with North Carolina’s recruitment consultant in northern Europe (we have one). They proceeded to grill him. One senator’s question summed it up: “Alabama has a car plant, Georgia has a car plant, South Carolina has a car plant. Tennessee has a car plant. Why doesn’t North Carolina have a car plant?” The consultant was responsible for siting recruitment for all industries, but we talked almost exclusively about cars. To me, it reveals the role that the ribbon-cutting dreams of politicians play in shaping their economic development plans. Be wary of the politician who would rather give lots of incentives to one car company that employs 2000 people than do the hard work to help build 100 companies that employ 20 people each. I think that’s in Proverbs somewhere.
- The obsession also shows a lack of understanding of modern industrial systems. Yes, 4800 people work at Volvo Torslanda. But how many more work on everything it takes to put the car together? Who builds the driverless truck? Who writes the code for the GPS system that guides it? Who ships the parts, who rolls the steel, who designs the ads? In other words, who builds the robots? North Carolina politicians are upset that “North Carolina doesn’t have a car plant.” That’s akin to Steven Spielberg complaining that everyone else in Hollywood is an actor except him. Maybe instead of seeking to be just one more car plant, we should try to develop a comparative advantage in all the skills and industries that those car plants require to produce anything. That’s harder, less under a politician’s control than a single plant (which still isn’t easy to control), and less shiny. But it can be as productive, and more so, than a single plant. It creates a more resilient economy. That should be a primary goal.
- Even when communities land the much sought after car plant, they need to face reality: those are no longer the wellspring of well-paying but low-skilled jobs they used to be. If your aim is to provide long-term stability for that target audience, you need a better plan. Don’t believe me? Ask the people who used to work at Saab or the 3000 who were laid off at Volvo Cars in 2009. Some of those jobs are lost to off-shore production, more may be lost to the Orange Arms of Automation. Better, then, to build the Orange Arms. To do that, however, requires consistent investment in the intellectual and physical infrastructure that makes high-tech production and innovation possible. That means roads, ports, and railways. It means internet access. It means a quality education for all, even, or especially, as people age and the industries they’ve worked in for decades fade. It means valuing–and valorizing–jobs in services industries like healthcare and education as much as we value “manly” jobs like car manufacturing, so that people will make the switch to industries that are growing.
Manufacturing is a world apart from where it was the last time I spent any real time in a factory. That process of remarkable change will continue. And yet the politics of manufacturing remains largely the same. It’s time that the political class that loves stirring the pot around the loss of manufacturing jobs themselves catch up with the times. Continuing in the same mindset around manufacturing that we’ve been in since World War II serves only the immediate interests of political opportunists. Everyone else pays the costs for their short-sightedness. For evidence of the effects of such short-sighted politics, you need look no further than the White House.