Some Assembly Required

Procrastinate long enough and reality catches up with you. Last April I said I had an idea for how Apple could bring some manufacturing back to the United States, after all that controversy about its assemby lines in China. As the year ended Apple’s Tim Cook announced the company was indeed looking into doing just that.

Now what I had in mind is unlikely to be what Apple is doing. But I’d like to share it with you anyway, to make a few points. This may appear to fall into the modest proposal category, but I’m not being sarcastic.

I didn’t want Apple to get back into the manufacturing business itself. Rather, they should facilitate an agreement between Foxconn and some of Apple’s employees in California or Texas to set up a shop in one of those states, near one or more of the big universities and good community colleges. (And Cook did indeed say they were looking for partners to do the actual work.)

Unlike Foxconn’s own operations, my plant would not offer regular employment to most of its workers. All of the assembly line work would be done by part-timers, students.

Yes, I”m talking child labour here. The Apple workers would be creating jobs for their kids, to help pay for their education and earn some spending money for the other costs of growing up in American society, like gas and car insurance.

Because education has always been central to the vision Apple’s leaders have had for the company, they should provide their student workers the most effective, and least expensive post secondary education. Maybe they could hook-up with those schools that are creating massive online classes featuring the very best professors and instructors.

From what I saw of the iPhone plant in China, a similar, smaller operation in the US would be relatively easy to set up. The parts are small and easily shipped. Indeed many of them are manufactured in the US and shipped to China. (Cook says they are more interested in making Macs locally.)

Apple itself owns the machines used in the Foxconn plants. Foxconn supplies the buildings, the labour and supervision. So the investors in this North American venture would need help with the organization and layout of the work, assuming they can come up with the financing for the site property and managing human resources. Apple could make them some loans to help kick start the venture.

Some full time adults would have to be hired of course, and trained by Foxconn engineers and supervisors. Indeed some of the students could be offered apprenticeships leading to full time employment in those areas.

Final assembly of the iPhone and the iPad models is more labour intensive than the production of their parts. Unlike other manufacturers Apple/Foxconn prefer the flexibility of workers over automation at this stage. This isn’t the kind of work that robots are good at, yet. Each operation is relatively simple, but there are enough changing options, during and between each production run, to make it easier to train humans rather than redesign and reprogram machines.

It looked like a production line for an iPhone involved no more than a 150 or so stations. Foxconn has hundreds of thousands of employees on thousands of assembly lines. But each line is a pretty basic setup, compared to say, a more complex larger product, like an automobile.

Although Apple claims labour costs are not the most important factor in their decision to outsource manufacturing, the advantage of cheaper Chinese labour is obvious. Paying student wages in the US, with few benefits, would keep the project competitive. The staff at Apple’s stores don’t fare much better.

Work would have to be scheduled around classes, but that’s nothing new for students. Shorter shifts, say 4 or 6 hours, with a limit of no more than 20 hours a week, should allow for a decent amount of income, as well as study time and some fun.

There should also be a limit, four years perhaps, on how long the students could work on the lines. Those who want to stay longer would enroll in an apprenticeship program, and become the managers and engineers running the plant.

That last idea is what I’d like to see for all assembly line work: a restriction to how long someone can work at the most basic level in a factory, where one is expected to do the same motion every few seconds, over and over again, all day long.

I don’t know how much longer manufacturers will need manual labour. I think we may have a few decades left before the robots take over all assembly work, but that is going to happen. As these jobs become fewer and fewer, there is no need to condemn someone to decades of being a cog in the machine. There are other kinds of blue collar work for older workers and other types of employment as well.

Farming once employed most of the population. Now it’s only a few percentage points. Manufacturing is going the same way.

In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with hard work, for the young.

In my last four years at Chrysler, I was a production coordinator. My best workers, with some exceptions, were the “temporary part time” students, who would come in on weekends and holidays to let the regular employees have some extra time off.

And who was my worst worker, you might ask. That would be me.  Whenever I had to go back on a line job it was a struggle to keep pace and not screw up. Fortunately my union required management to free me up as soon as possible, and most of the time I was then able to audit my own mistakes and get them fixed. (Yes, I was still an hourly paid autoworker, one with many of the responsibilities, but not the authority, of a supervisor. Seniority has its privileges.)

Since I retired I hear the students are now allowed to work any day of the week. Absenteeism is still a big problem.

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