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by Panos Prevedouros

There are three fundamental trends at play in this half century:

  • Aging of both population and infrastructure;
  • Advanced economies cannot absorb unskilled and low skilled laborers; and,
  • Too many crises in one decade took our eye off the ball.

The first trend affects the US more than other nations. Baby-boomers have started reaching the age of retirement and the age when health maintenance expenses increase. As a result many state pension and health funds are under substantial stress and their situation is likely to rapidly worsen as more workers age and fewer workers find high paying jobs that pay high enough taxes to sustain pension and health expenses. One of the proposals toward retirement fund solvency is to raise the age of retirement from the typical of 65 year of age to 70.

Along with the baby boom in the US also came the second infrastructure boom (the first one was during the Great Depression.) The second boom focused mostly on transportation and the road and air modes in particular, along with a misguided urban rail renaissance* of the late 1970s till the 1990s. For example, BART in San Francisco and Metro in Washington. DC are facing work backlogs in the order of tens of billions of dollars for required refurbishment and rehabilitation to bring those systems to a top operational condition. The bills are in the billions for bridges and elevated highway sections, and for the strengthening and restoration of millions of lane-miles of roadways.

While infrastructure presents a great opportunity for boosting the job count, a lot of the work is both highly technical and very expensive. The former implies that unskilled labor is unsuitable, and the latter implies that a lot of infrastructure projects may be unaffordable. The existing gasoline taxes which have been constant for almost 20 years at the federal level have lost value and are insufficient to cover highway maintenance. In addition about 20% of these funds is re-purposed to pay for loss-making transit systems.

Electric and other non-fossil fuel powered vehicles are not visiting the gas pump regularly (or ever), thus no tax for their road usage is collected. The highway tax system needs both a tax rate update and modernization. This will create new jobs, but again, the expertise will vary from technician to engineer; no need for unskilled labor.

This segways us to the second trend which is the progressive evolution of advanced technologies out of labor intensive jobs. Agriculture, construction and manufacturing are increasingly automated. They require fewer and more skilled staff. A good example is driverless trains in France. They replace approximately 100 motormen with two dozen rail engineers and train management technicians in a control room. This cuts the job count by 75% and costs by 50%. Fewer, more comfortable and better paid jobs is what advanced economies provide.

Retailing absorbs low skill labor. But there are many changes that reduce the unskilled job count in retailing such as Internet retailing, big box store retailing and upscale retailing, all of which require fewer and better skilled workers.

The transportation sector employees roughly 5% to 15% of a region’s workers (the count is higher in highly urbanized areas). This sector is dominated by federal and state regulations as well as unions. Both regulations and unions make the absorption of low skill labor more difficult.

The third trend is actually a series of calamities that caused stress to the economy and inattention to its drifting into deep losses. I list eight major ones:

  1. Global Warming related regulations leading to various stresses on energy production and pricing.
  2. The September 11, 2001 attacks in the US and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  3. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans which, among other things, caused a fuel price escalation.
  4. Drought in Texas with major impacts on jobs and food prices.
  5. Huge losses in wind and solar projects, and erratic US energy policy.
  6. Rapid increase in commodity and energy prices due in part to rising demand in Asia.
  7. The sub-prime lending melt down.
  8. Euro crisis, weakening US dollar, and Chinese RMB strengthening are causing various currency instabilities.

How did we get here? The discussion above suggests that large losses in the count of jobs in 2009 and 2010 can be explained by natural trends (aging), structural trends (modernization) and calamities (man and nature-made losses).

What’s in store? Prognostication is both fun and faulty. One thing that is certain is that the BAU model, that is, Business As Usual will bring more of the same.

If Congress remains dysfunctional, if state and federal administrations focus on government expansion and business regulation, if unions stress demands for perks instead of modernization and productivity improvements, if US energy policy continues to be an assortment of mostly special-interest ideas and incentives, then job count and quality of life will certainly deteriorate.

It does not have to be this way. Upcoming articles look into ways for more sustainable jobs.

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(*) Rail Transit: Are we creating new life or resuscitating a dinosaur? This was the title of an 1980s article by Northwestern University’s Joseph Schofer, a distinguished professor of transportation at the McCormick School of Engineering and its Associate Dean.

Panos Prevedouros is a member of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii’s Board of Scholars.

Panos Prevedouros’ blog, which is from where this has been reposted (with permission), can be found at :http://fixoahu.blogspot.com

Panos D. Prevedouros, Ph.D. is a professor of traffic and transportation engineering at the Department of Civil Engineering, Univ. of Hawaii-Manoa since 1990. Panos graduated from the Aristotle Univ. of Greece in 1984, and with Masters and PhD degrees in 1990 from Northwestern Univ. (Evanston, IL), a leading academic institution in engineering and transportation. He chairs the Freeway Simulation Subcommittee of the Transportation Research Board. He was president of the Hawaii Highway Users Alliance from 2006 to 2008. Panos co-authored a Transportation Engineering textbook and over 100 reports and technical papers. He received the 2005 Van Wagoner Award of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. He co-organized the 1st International Symposium on Freeway Operations (ISFO) in Athens, Greece, and the 2nd ISFO in Honolulu in June 2009. Dr. Prevedouros served in the Transit Advisory Task Force in 2006 and in the Technology Selection Expert Panel in 2008 of the City Council of Honolulu. He ran for mayor of Honolulu in the 2008 elections and finished 3rd in the primary elections with 18% of the vote from a field of nine candidates.