Sherrod Brown, Rob Portman and Tim Ryan have been at the front in pressing General Motors to find a future for its plant in Lordstown. The two senators and U.S. House member have reminded the automaker about its five decades in the Mahoning Valley, and how the plant, according to J.D. Power, ranks at the top in quality of all the company’s plants in North America.
They, and many others across Northeast Ohio, want GM to reverse its decision last month to close the plant next year. They aren’t calling for the automaker to keep assembling the slower-selling Chevy Cruze there. They get the demands of the marketplace, SUVs and light trucks the preferred choice in this time of lower gas prices.
One pitch goes: Make Lordstown part of the company vision, as described in the statement announcing the closure of Lordstown and four other plants: “Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion.” In other words, retool the plant to make an electric or autonomous vehicle.
That would permit the region to escape the devastating void closure would bring, the fallout rippling through the supply chain and the rest of the local economy. Yet saving the plant, as welcome as that would be, carries its own complicating factors. The pending closure isn’t just about slack demand, and the remedy doesn’t appear as simple as getting another vehicle and going back to work.
In a recent essay, first appearing in the Harvard Business Review, Mark Muro and Robert Maxim of the Brookings Institution highlight something too little discussed about the GM decision, its place in the “digitalization of everything,” or “the diffusion of digital and electronic technologies into nearly every industry, business and workplace in America.”
As Muro and Maxim explain, the GM announcement is “about accelerating the staffing changes mandated by the company’s aggressive transition from analog to digital products and from gasoline to electric power.” The electrical and electronic content of cars has been increasing dramatically, and that is altering the workforce.
Consider that in recent years, the fastest growing occupations in the auto sector have been computer support specialists, human resource specialists and software developers. Muro and Maxim note that automakers want more software engineers, energy management experts and data scientists to build electric and self-driving cars.
One temptation is to think that automation largely has run its course in the auto industry. Muro and Maxim point out that doesn’t seem the case. They calculate that nearly two-thirds of all jobs in the auto sector have a potential for automation of at least 70 percent during the next 15 years. At 90 percent or higher are the likes of machine tool setters, welders and brazers and press machine operators.
Which positions are least likely to face automation? Muro and Maxim cite such occupations as computer and information systems manager, logistician and software developer.
This change isn’t anyone’s fault, though there is much room to question excesses in company stock buybacks and executive salaries. Speaking recently at the City Club of Cleveland, John Kasich argued: “Lordstown in some respects … is kind of on the cutting edge of the turbulence we will see in our economy because of the creation of new technologies.” Not kind of. The plant is right there, GM responding, as Muro and Maxim put it, to “massive, technology-driven changes in the nature of the work at hand.”
When taxpayers rescued the automaker in 2009, the deal was: The company would make the hard choices to survive and eventually prosper. The closure announcement is an extension of that thinking, GM making an “existential” choice. In its way, the company also is forecasting the type of workers it will need, those with digital skills or who can operate well with networks and systems.
Thus, chances are, the workforce at a retooled Lordstown will differ sharply from those currently there.
Which gets to the necessary response beyond making a persuasive case for keeping Lordstown. For decades, Ohio and the country have faced this challenge of adapting the workforce. Neither has been effective enough, failing short in preparing workers and in assisting those who are displaced. The General Motors announcement sounds a call to do better. It’s now about the “digitalization of everything.”
Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.