How The Brexit Stole Thanksgiving!


We waited all year ’round for Thanksgiving. It’s become America’s favorite holiday, eclipsing even Christmas. This is the day that we all sit down together and give thanks for the good things that happened that year. Did junior got accepted into a top tier school? Has your new business venture taken off? Did your investments fatten your retirement fund? Lots of things to give thanks for this year. Unless you’re the Turkey… or if you live in the UK!

Instead of savoring a juicy Thanksgiving Turkey, in 2018 all the UK had to look forward to was the arrival of the nastiest of all holiday creatures, the BREXIT! No one knows exactly what the Brexit is or what it wants, but everyone agrees that this most improbable of beasts is the UK’s greatest nightmare.

Yes, it’s true, the Brexit is a horrifying creature, and it gets worse every day. Especially, if you’re a Prime Minister by the name of Theresa Mary May. 

Strange. I didn’t feel a rhyme coming on. 

Anyway, back in 1993, the UK complained that the US was getting everything it wanted. America was too big to compete with, and their new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), would linking the economies of the US, Mexico, and Canada into a super competitor. The UK wanted Europe to do the same and create a single trading region. Germany, France, and Italy agreed. And the EU was launched.

The EU had several immediate objectives. First, Europe needed a common currency, Without constantly trying to figure out translations between currencies, tourists would spend more and business across the border would be easier. Done: The Euro was created. Less developed areas (Grece, Portugal) could be developed by turning them into “outsourcing” centers. Done: the economies of poorer nations more than doubled. And of course, it was supposed to create prosperity across the EU. The UK grew even faster than most EU nations. What was the result? 

The UK complained that the EU was getting everything it wanted. They said that EU bureaucrats were too big and powerful. The EU headquarters in Brussels was telling them how to run their economy!

The UK is intimidated by Brussels? The former ruler of most of the world is getting beat up by Brussels? The second largest financial capital in the world (maybe the first… all that hidden offshore banking you hear about flows from former UK territories and through London banks) is afraid of Brussels? The only time Brussels brings fear and intimidation to MY Thanksgiving is when the Brussel Sprout souffle lands on the table.   

Conservative, like Boris Johnson, wanted to make the UK great again. They wanted “UK First”. But it’s a lot harder to put together a plan than to complain about someone else’s plan. The process would be complicated and SOMEONE will be unhappy no matter what you do. And it could fail! That’s not good if you want to be re-elected! 

Boris and his gang of bargain basement Grinches got together and gave this a good thinking out. They puzzled and puzzled till their puzzlers were sore. Then they thought of something they hadn’t before… let’s have a public referendum. Let everyone choose! If the country is ruined, let some other blokes lose! But if it does pass, and the transition goes well… then BREXIT baby BREXIT, uhhh even if it does slightly smell.

More rhymes… must be the time of year.

So, there you have it. The Brexit was born in 2016, without a plan or even the understanding of the financial consequences if it should fail. Rather than being carefully thought out, the Brexit has become a beast of its own making. THose who created the Brexit sold it as a fuzzy bunny or a soft cuddly kitten, but it has quickly mutated into Godzilla’s uglier cousin. Well, it’s not Turkey, but look at those drumsticks!

Still, all may not be lost. There could be a bright side to all of this. The world could learn a lesson from the Brexit. Mostly about what you should not do. You should never believe any “movement” that promises all benefits and no problems.  Never accept the “everyone is unfair” argument, without supporting evidence. Never assume that you must get the most out of every deal.  

The list goes on and on. Basically, be reasonable, listen to arguments from the opposition, and when you complain about the deals that you started… expect that not everyone is going to roll up and do what you want. So, maybe, give thanks and don’t be a giant Brexit!

 

 

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Is America’s Food… Secure?


Paignton004 001

Periodically, America has a food scare. Sometimes it is tainted beef at a big supermarket chain, sometimes it’s E. Coli contamination at a national fast food chain. It might even be bird flu at a chicken farm. Some of our favorite foods… like bananas and oranges… are expected to be wiped out by invasive pests. Food is becoming very scary! Is any food safe? Or at least safely grown?

Today’s food is… complicated. Bugs and pests have invaded America and periodically wipe out a crop. So we double down on pesticides and irrigation. Of course, that washes away the soil, so farmers need to dump fertilizers into the fields to keep the farm profitable. Downhill and downstream, all those chemicals do strange things to our rivers and lakes.

American farming is locked in a vicious circle of chemicals, pests, depleted reservoirs, and angry parents who want more natural foods for their families but have grown used to the low prices that come with mass-produced foods. The thing is, all the land that can be profitably used for farming, is used for farming. Unfarmed land pretty much isn’t worth farming. Except for national parks. But we’re not quite ready to burn down our forests to make more farmland. Yet.

Every day that passes means that a bit more of America’s farmlands die. Over-irrigation washes away the soil. Without soil to hold the plant and to provide nutrients, food can’t grow. In many places in America, over 100 feet of top soil is gone forever. If those fields lose another foot or two… or in some cases just an inch… nothing will grow.

As our soil loses productivity farmers use more and more water to irrigate crops, soaking the soil with minerals and salts that further degrade productivity. This soil degradation destroys 38,000 square miles of global farmland annually. Sounds bad enough, right? But consider this… for every foot of soil that dies, several other feet of farmland less and less productive. 

America’s growing population also requires land for homes, schools, malls, and the rest of the infrastructure of our 21st Century life. Future city land is often made from former farmland. Between 1992 and 2012 urban development in cities and towns cost America almost 31 million acres of farmland.

Commercial farming is headed in a dangerous direction. However, there are alternatives. Like Vertical Farming. Vertical farming is the evolution of hydroponics…. growing food indoors, without soil. The brilliant, but simple, innovation of vertical farming is that instead of growing one flat level of produce, you stack hydroponic “farms” on top of each other… from the floor to the ceiling… multiplying the productivity of the farm with every additional level you add.

A soil based farm has only one level, a vertical farm have 3 or 4 levels (more with a high ceiling). If your V-farm is in an abandoned factory, with multiple floors, you could have ten levels on every floor, with several floors built the same way. That would give you 30 or 40 times the productivity of the same footage of soil. With a temperature controlled environment, you can grow crops all year round, instead of having just the 2 or 3 you get with most soil farms.

There are other multipliers, like 24-hour “sun”. Add it all up and V-farms can be 100 to 300 times more productive than a single layer soil farm. Because the food is indoors and all of the pests are outdoors, there’s no need for pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals. Even storms and cold weather can’t destroy your crops.

Just as importantly, indoor farms can be in the center of a city. A V-farm can be next to (or on top of) a supermarket. Without the need to transport food from across the country, or around the world, millions of tons of carbon emissions would be eliminated.

With all of these advantages, are V-farms the perfect way to grow food? Alas… no. Where it works (and doesn’t) depends on specific circumstances. Consider all of the artificial sunlight you need to grow crops. Today’s LED lights are amazingly efficient, but they still use electricity, which is one of the primary costs of indoor farming.

If you live near coal-fired power plants, more power means more pollution. On the other hand, if cheap hydro, wind, or solar power is available, AND there are abandoned factories nearby, you can have a very successful V-farm. Build your V-farm in a low-income urban environment, where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, and there are other social rewards.

Vertical farms may not be perfect, but they are going to be an important part of the future of farming. What about you? Want to use your roof as a farm? Could your local school grow produce for its students? The great thing about vertical farming is that you don’t need to change the whole world to make a difference that matters. You could just change a few square feet of space, and start your own miniature farm.

Let your fellow readers know what you think!

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Project Manager: The Best New Career For Operation Managers?


person holding book and ceramic mug with coffee

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I recently read an article by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, “Re-Humanising Work and Organizations Through Projects“. Antonio raises an interesting point. Typical positions in operation have changed. Automation and management systems have taken over.  Operations managers once had great latitude and followed their instincts, but now their primary job is to simply conform to metrics, metrics that are often defined somewhere else. Is Antonio right? Can project work truly provide an alternative and a new and more fulfilling career for operations managers? Let’s recap where we are and how we got here, and then we can dive in and see where we’re headed!

It’s hard to disagree with the premise that automation, management software, and new PMO and efficiency departments have changed the way that operations managers work. Managers used to have a wider range of duties, combining what is today both day to day management and the management of special projects. Projects have now been siloed, and are generally managed through different groups.

While modern corporations have always compartmentalized functions, operation managers were supposed to focus on their strength, which was knowing how their operation worked. At first IT departments arrived. As work was converted to IT functions, the scope of business managers began to shrink. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They, towards the end of the 20th century, corporate reliance on consultants and outsourced services increased. This regular infusion of outside expertise and resources both standardized project management practices and increased the number of projects in corporations.

Project management transformed from personal knowledge and art into a professional practice. And the number of practitioners rose. Naturally, that led to the development of Project Management departments or offices (PMO’s). Back in operations, managers learned about management reports from outsourcers. The reports that service providers prepared for operations managers eventually became the template for corporate operations reports.

Managers moved back and forth between competitors, as did service providers. Eventually, this created industry-wide standardization. Operations departments in most corporations tracked the same metrics, using the same tools, even producing remarkably similar management reports. With all of these similarities internal (and later third-party) developers created management software to automate these processes.

Which brings us up to today. Now project managers are a common corporate position and operations software is everywhere. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), by 2027 employers will need 87.7 million project managers globally. Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is quite right. There is a huge potential market for project managers. However, the PMI may have missed a few details that will significantly change the future of project management. Consider the following…

Why do we have PMs? Well, obviously to manage projects. But what are these projects and why are there so many of them? Many, if not most, exist to improve efficiency. They have to. Now that project management is a professional practice, projects on a whim or because a manager likes the idea are sorted out in the early stages. There are always more potential projects than resources, so the most valuable ones… the ones that return the greatest measurable benefits, get approved first. Even installing a mandatory software upgrade (to keep a support agreement active), will probably deliver new features to improve productivity.

Think about the drivers of corporate change in the last decade… outsourcing, automation, software, robots, artificial intelligence, change management… all of these types of projects are supposed to deliver greater efficiency or pay for themselves by reducing headcount. Yet, these are the types of projects that either reduce the scope of responsibilities for operational managers or directly replace them. Project management may be the next logical position for operational managers, but only because project management has cannibalized operational roles.

Are PM’s here to stay? Project management is a fairly new discipline. However, it has been around for a few decades. Long before PMs were in corporate offices they were specialists in IT. Earlier still, PMs got started in construction, engineering, and architecture. Building a modern skyscraper (or designing a jumbo jet, or launching a new cruise ship) requires management of a massive number of parts, people, and events. Because of this, Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software has become as common in these professions as Excel is in banking. CAD, predominantly Autodesk’s Audocad, has moved beyond churning out blueprints and now specifies the parts you need, develops a budget, and produces a schedule. Clients today expect a 3D walkthrough on their project before they turn over the first shovel of dirt for a billion dollar project. Big projects are thoroughly integrated with computers.

Robots are taking over in construction, laying bricks, pumping concrete, and building whole houses with 3D printers. Blueprints and schedules are now digital and can be fed directly into construction robots. Site management robots (basically, onsite PMs) will be released this year. Artificial Intelligence is now being used to identify areas of corporate  improvement. This used to be the domain of PMOs and project managers. Identifying important projects and performing the processes needed to develop and deliver these projects… probably the highest functions of project management… but are all in the process of being automated.

The writing is on the wall. Or maybe the digital whiteboard. Many operational managers have already been replaced by technology. For many critical operations, machine intelligence is outperforming humans. Project Management has managed projects that increase productivity in operations, but project management itself is now about to be replaced by automation and Artificial Intelligence.

What will come after Project Management? How will the millions of project managers and operational managers evolve, what exactly will they do? Keep reading this blog, and we’ll cover this soon, in an upcoming article!

What do you think? Let us know if you think that the future for project management is bright, or it is about to be eclipsed!

Posted in Best Practices, Delivering Services, Employment, Improvement, Improvement, Continuous or Not, Project Management Office, Robots | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

New Taxi War As UBER Gets Regulated


yellow taxi car

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com

Cars for hire and nothing new. Taxi’s… hacks, jitneys, limousines, hansome cabs… existed before the first automobile. As soon as the automobile did arrive in the early 20th century, there was an explosion of new car services. The early 21st century started out with a new revolution in services, driven by mobile computing and smartphone apps, eventually leading to UBER and Lyft. In just a few years car services will enter yet another revolution when self-driving cars arrive. Yet, the regulations for car services were written nearly a century ago. Is it time to rewrite the rules?

Ride-sharing services ordered from your smartphone are a pretty new idea, less than a decade old. In this very short time, UBER and Lyft have become juggernauts of personal transportation. By consumers using apps instead of competing on the street for the next taxi, this new generation of car rides has become incredibly popular. UBER alone is worth more than all of the other taxi services in America, combined.

To attain this status, UBER has put an enormous number of taxis on the streets… especially in New York City, the world’s largest taxi market. There are 13,587 iconic yellow taxis in New York. In 2015 UBER had about the same number of cars on the streets of New York. Now, UBER has 80,000 cars in New York. You can’t add those many cars to a single city… even New York City… without having a major impact.

For consumers, that impact has been very positive. At 9am and 5pm it used to be very difficult to get a taxi. When you do get your taxi, it might not be all that clean and the driver’s ability to communicate often left something to be desired. Manhattan is just one of the five boroughs that make up New Your City, but finding a taxi outside of Manhattan used to be nearly impossible. Some neighborhoods in Manhattan were notorious for their lack of taxis. Post-UBER, the consumer experience definitely improved.

But for taxi owners and drivers, things have definitely become worse. The flood of car sharing services has reduced the number of rides that yellow cabs get every day. Yellow cabs also complain that they have many more regulations to follow than the new services, making them uncompetitive. Are they right?

In order to operate a yellow taxi, you need to get one of the 13,587 taxi medallions. Look closely at a yellow taxi and you will see a mysterious little tag are riveted to the hood. The medallion controls how taxis operate.

  1. The number of medallions is limited. The total number hasn’t changed much since the medallion system was created in 1937. Once you own a medallion you own it for life, or until you sell it. However, taxis are on the street 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. That’s 5 shifts. That yields nearly 70,000 driver jobs. Obviously, the addition of 80,000 cars for just UBER have completely changed the economics for drivers.
  2. Medallions are expensive. Before UBER took hold in 2013, taxi medallions reached a peak value of $1.3 million. Some medallions are owned by individuals who drive the taxi, and others are owned by garages that lease out the taxis. Now a medallion can be bought for $250,000. Collectively, medallion owners have lost $14 billion in just 5 years. Drivers with their own medallions usually borrowed money, and are now bankrupt. Still, with a much lower price, medallions have been  “democratized”, allowing more drivers to buy their medallion. But, with prices still falling, buyers are becoming harder to find. UBER and Lyft drivers do not need medallions, allowing them to offer lower prices for rides.
  3. Taxis are regulated. Of all the different type of car services, yellow taxis have the strictest regulations.  Drivers require full background checks, have fixed rates (that are printed on the side of the taxi), carry taxi insurance, have licenses pulled for traffic violations, and all changes to services require approval by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. New car services are not held to the same standards. No medallion, no taxi insurance required, less stringent background checks, and each firm can change rates as they like. Along with the rise of car sharing, has been a rise in sexual assaults, drivers with criminal backgrounds, and something called surge pricing.
  4. Taxi rates are fixed. If you take a yellow taxi, the rates you will pay are written on the door. Every taxi has a meter that tells you the cost of the ride costs so far, and if there are any tolls or special charges. App-based car services usually have a variable charge, called surge pricing. A ride that cost $35 yesterday, could cost $100 today. The idea is that when more people want the service, the price rises. Car services see surge pricing as a major feature of profitability. Customers often see it as price gouging. When you installed the car-sharing app on your phone, you agreed to surge pricing and a lot of other conditions that probably are not in your best interest.

New York is about to cap the number of “for hire” cars, freezing new licenses for a year. This will give the governement time to examine how the rise in car sharing has impacted New York. Just one of the issues is how the addition of all these cars has affected traffic. It’s a very good question. While the UBER’S of the world have been adding to the number of cars, the Amazons and Walmarts have been adding to the number of trucks making home deliveries. Add in the host of new navigation apps that have redirected traffic through formerly quiet neighborhoods, and you can see just how much transportation technology has impacted the quality of life around New York.

The gloves are off and ride-sharing is getting regulated. App-based car sharing has improved the service for customers, but it also congests big cities and has financially crushed many small taxi owners. Balancing the needs of drivers and customers will be very difficult. But it may not matter. Self-driving cars and buses are already on the streets. A self-driving car could offer rides at half the cost of human-operated vehicles. How will the ongoing “Taxi Wars” turn out? Nobody knows, at least not yet. But, dear reader, keep reading here and I’ll make sure that you get all the inside details!

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Evolution of The Light Bulb and The Jobless Future


light bulb

Human beings use technology. Our extensive use of technology is what defines being human. Humanity only has a written history of our early life because we invented the technology of writing. That written history often speaks about the rise and fall of empires and the technology that we used. Stone tools, smelted metal, stone buildings, war chariots, and even agriculture. Humanity and technology evolved together. Recently, during the industrial revolution, our simpler tools evolved into machines. At first, machines made us better and more productive workers. Now, machines compete with human workers for jobs. For nearly two centuries machines created new jobs, but now machines are creating a jobless future. Consider the humble light bulb.

Everyone knows what a light bulb is. Bulbs are so important to our world and so ubiquitous that when we want to show that someone has an idea or invention we draw a cartoon of the bulb lighting up over their heads. The light bulb was invented almost a century and a half ago. But lately, that bulb has changed. Originally it was a glass tube with a hot, glowing wire. Now it is more like a miniature computer. And that’s where our problem starts.

America uses a lot of light bulbs! The average home has 47 light bulbs or nearly 6 billion bulbs across the US. If these were all 100-watt incandescent bulbs (which they were, until recently), they would consume 535,000-megawatt hours (MW) of electricity when they are used.

If we compare this to Palo Verde, America’s largest nuclear power plant… which generates 3,937 MW and employs 2,000 workers… it would take 135 Palo Verde to power them. That’s 270,000 power plant jobs just to light up bulbs in our homes. We also use bulbs in corporations, streets and parking lots, restaurants, schools, hospitals, small businesses, etc. This easily doubles the power, and the power stations, we need for bulbs.

When bulbs were incandescent, a 100-watt light bulb burned 100 watts. Simple! If it was used for 8 hours a day it lasts for 6 months. Fluorescent bulbs came next and have been around for decades, but homes only partially adopted them. The color of their light was a bit “off”, and some people saw an annoying flicker in the light. Improved compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs produced better light, lasted longer, and used just 24 watts for the same amount of light. LED bulbs are the newest technology, producing similar illumination with just 11 watts, and lasting 10 to 20 years. That’s an 89% power savings over incandescent. Which makes nearly half a million power plant jobs obsolete.

Don’t worry about Palo Alto. As one of the most advanced, automated, and efficient power plants in America it will get along just fine. Instead, our oldest and least efficient power plants will shut down. They use more workers per MW than Palo Alto and usually burn coal. That means that even more power plant jobs will be redundant. Without these power plants, few of the remaining 50,000 coal mining jobs will be needed. Finally, consider how long LED bulbs last. Since they rarely burn out the army of handymen, superintendents, and repair people who replace old bulbs won’t be needed either.

At this point, you might think, “If changing to LED bulbs destroys American jobs, maybe I won’t switch!” That won’t work unless most Americans do the same. And American’s are switching to LED’s, in very large numbers. The low power use of LED’s translate into cost savings. Going back to just our 535,000 MW per hour for home light bulbs, a switch from incandescent to LED means that an hour of LED light saves $57 million dollars. Switching from CF to LED saves a “mere” $15 million per hour. Either way, add up all of the hours the bulb is used in a year and you see that it is a truly massive amount of money.

You might also think, “But everyone will buy LEDs and that means more jobs!” Unfortunately, no. Remember the long, long lifetime of LEDs? Since an LED can last 50 times longer than an old style bulb… new versions will last even longer… once everyone has replaced their old lights, it’s going to be a long time before they need to change these bulbs. Even if tastes change Americans all buy much more lighting, LED factories are highly automated and are mostly offshore. They are not going to add many jobs in America.

A change in technology in our humble light bulb sets off a massive disruption in employment throughout America and the world. But light bulbs are not unique! There are disruptors everywhere… even in some of the most fundamental areas of our economy.

Self Driving Cars: It seems that everyone wants to get in on self-driving cars.  There are too many companies to list! When vehicles are all self-driving, millions of jobs for drivers will go away. With just self-driving vehicles on the road, accidents will virtually disappear (35 thousand killed every year, a million plus with injuries). That means car insurance goes away, and tens of thousands of lawyers, plus many hospital emergency rooms and beds, and fewer garages to repair cars.

Hotels: When America change from a manufacturing to a service economy, hotels and vacations spots benefited. Today, more than 16 million Americans work in the hotel and leisure industry. But firms like Airbnb, HomeAway, and Turnkey are working feverishly to disrupt the hotel industry. By making hotels and travel less expensive, they are draining money out of the industry. Reusing existing spaces inside our homes mean that the industry now needs far less real estate. And fewer hotel managers, cleaning staff, travel agents, furniture manufacturers, and so on. And… for the time being at least… fewer taxes since there are currently a number of tax loopholes that significantly favor vacation homes over hotels.

Finance: Supermarkets and department stores are decades ahead of banking and financial firms in becoming digital, online, and paperless. Banking is desperately playing catchup. Which may mean adopting Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies,  approving loans through artificial intelligence, and digitally managing virtually all paperwork. As much as 40% of America’s 6 million financial jobs would be lost in this transition. But hyper-simplified digital financial services won’t just reduce staffing in financial services. Every firm will need far fewer staff for payroll and accounting. In fact, payroll companies would virtually disappear, along with firms that print checks, produce credit cards and so on. Digital services would eliminate the need for all fo these middlemen.

Disruption, after disruption, after disruption. There’s an endless list of disruptions, each larger than the last, with each new disruption eliminating more jobs than they replace until we arrive at a jobless future. Some technologies, especially in artificial intelligence, may replace jobs they create before the first hire. Before you lose all hope, and bow to your robotic masters… a jobless future may not be as bad as you think. But that is another story!

Posted in Best Practices, Decision Making, Employment, Improvement, Uncategorized, Unique Ideas | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Despite Today’s Great Employment, The Future is Jobless


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The Federal employment statistics for America have arrived for June of 2018 and they are spectacular! 218,000 new jobs were created, unemployment is low and holding at 4%, but unemployment isn’t so low that inflation is rising, and wages are largely unchanged allowing employers to keep hiring! Really good news. Or is it? Low wages are good for employers, but not for workers. Classic economics say that we haven’t achieved full employment until employers are forced to raise wages. Could the rules of economics have changed? Is it possible that these good numbers are really a foreshadowing of… a jobless future?

We’ve all heard about automation, outsourcing, and lost jobs. Experts say that half or more of all jobs will disappear in the coming years. Most jobs will be taken over or eliminated by technology, leaving few employees in the jobless future. Technology will replace old jobs, and take over new jobs faster than they are created. That’s something completely new. Unemployment rules will change, and “normal unemployment” will rise from 4% or 5%, to 50% or 60%.

If numbers change this much, the old ways of calculating unemployment or even knowing when numbers are good or bad, will need to fundamentally change. This isn’t the first time American needed to reset expectations. In the old economy of the 1970’s and 1980’s, “full employment”, the best you could expect, was around 7% to 8%. From 1971 to 1989, unemployment averaged 7%, briefly touched a record low of 4.9 and rose to a high of 10.4. Eight of those years were 7% or higher, catastrophic unemployment by today’s definition.

Today full employment is around 4%. President Donald Trump tells us that 4.0% is phenomenally low, and a great achievement. Candidate Donald Trump, however, told us that President Barak Obama had a disastrously high 4.7%unemployment rate. His point wasn’t that 4.7 was too high, but that the calculation (that we still use) was wrong. Trump has a point.

The economy has changed, yet we still use formulas from the last century, when workers were primarily full-time, male, and often unionized. Some women were full-time workers, but it was the exception, not the rule. Women were often part-time (while still a full-time housewife). Or worked full-time, but eventually quit for marriage, children, or when an older member of the family needed to be cared for. Unfair? Absolutely. But that was the reality.

Retired, full-time students, under 18 years old, or permanently disabled were removed from workforce numbers. Today, however, we have a new category of “discouraged workers”. In the old economy, union workers were frequently laid off. Many core industries… such as steel, agriculture, or automobiles… were regularly, sometimes seasonally, laid off or had their hours cut. But as union workers, they would be the first to be rehired and would receive unemployment and union compensation. Union workers would usually take their same place in a factory, with the same title, even regaining seniority and benefits.

Today’s workers are unlikely to be union members. Today, laid off means fired. You might receive some financial compensation, but this is increasingly unlikely unless you are an executive. Benefits end, there is no union pay, and rehiring laid-off workers can have negative tax and legal implications for a corporation. Re-hires have become rare indeed. That makes it difficult for the Department of Labor your intentions. A laid-off union worker wants to get back to his paid job. A laid-off worker today, especially when older, may choose to retire early, or try and fail to find a comparable job, or their occupation may simply have disappeared (at least at the old salary level).

Discouraged workers are left out of unemployment calculations. They have become the invisible unemployed. This is part of what Trump referred to. And it’s not just Trump. Quite a few respectable economists point to this invisible population. If they are right, real unemployment might be twice that of official unemployment number. But these are not the only changes impacting unemployment numbers. Consider the following…

Gig Workers: In the old economy, musicians and photographers had “gigs”. Every job was short and temporary. Even concert musicians only had a gig for the season. They had to work out the rest of the year for themselves. A concert musician might have benefits with their gig, but few gig workers have health care, paid days off, or even overtime. Today, the number of gig workers has exploded! Plus big corporations now hire many permanent part-time workers or sub-contract work to third parties (who hire part-time workers). Part-time workers were once rare, but today they are 34% of the entire workforce and will rise to 43% by 2020.

Benefits: Some full-time jobs offer benefits… time off, health care, etc. … or overtime. Benefits alone are worth 20% to 30% on top of pay. Health benefits can be worth far more in a large family or if a family member has a severe illness. Overtime pays 50% more for working more than 40 hours a week, and double time (100% more than usual) can apply on weekends and late at night. Part-time, gig, temp, self-employed, and contract workers rarely get benefits or overtime.

While Federal reports on salary do not take benefits into account, 60% of workers report that benefits and other perks are a major factor in accepting a job offer. 80% of employees would choose additional benefits over a pay raise. The reality is that for almost every family, the decline in benefits is a decline in salary.

Immigration: Many occupations… agriculture, food service, hotels, cleaning services, tourism, travel… are seasonal. Legally (and otherwise) these temporary jobs are often filled by immigrants. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, this usually applied to just agriculture jobs in border states. Service jobs have been America’s major growth segment for the past 30 years. The service industry depends on unskilled labor provided by immigrants. However, injecting additional workers into the workforce reduces the pressure on employers to raise wages.

Offshoring: If you can’t bring immigrants to America, you can send work offshore. Offshoring was once a time-consuming, complex, and risky process, but has become quick and easy. Every major corporation has an offshoring program that they run or that they have subcontracted out. When local wages rise, work is simply sent… somewhere else, with lower wages. Every new outsourcing project makes the next one easier and more likely to happen. Now, even if there is enough work for everyone, outsourcing acts like a pressure valve, reducing the pressure of a heated economy, and suppressing wages. This too is unaccounted for.

Automation: While offshoring replaced and devalued jobs, automation has eliminated far more jobs. Old style automation was expensive and inflexible, solutions specific to just one situation or one factory. A new factory requires new implementation and new costs. A small change in process and everything stops working. New automation uses artificial intelligence, costs less and is quickly implemented. If changes occur, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can self-correct. AI’s are now even identifying and planning new projects.

Automation once just happened in factories. New automation has been applied to Wall Street, law firms, hospitals, and other places with high paying, highly skilled positions. Factory workers, service workers (especially fast food), and jobs that require MBA degrees are all being replaced by robots and machine intelligence.

Reshoring: Previously offshored work is returning to America. However, returning work does not mean returning jobs. A shoe factory that offshored and then reshored work… perhaps to the same factory… will create few jobs. In order to be financially viable, that factory will now be far more automated. New factories will soon be completely automated, with no human workers.

Pensions: Pensions are a different, but important, issue. Pensions were common in the mid-21st century, but have become rare. In the 1990s 60% of full-time workers in medium and large firms had pensions, compared to just 24% today. Many who have still have pensions have had their benefits slashed and will receive far less than they were promised. Today’s retirees will primarily depend on social security. Without the resources of their predecessors, income for senior citizens is falling.

Employment and salary data, even how we calculate our wealth, has become questionable. According to the PEW Research Center, except for the very highly paid, real wages in America stalled in 1964. Buy a house or have a major medical procedure and you will learn how far your compensation has fallen behind real costs.

As our economy evolves, we need new ways to track key economic indicators. If experts are right about a jobless future, if we use the current system we won’t even know if our economy gets better or worse.

What do you think? Has the economy been improving since the start of the 21st Century? Or does the information you see on mainstream news no longer match what you see at home? Share your opinion with us!

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When Small Towns Die Out, Can America Survive?


 

City Hall 1.jpg

When you think of America, what comes to mind? The bright lights of New York’s Broadway? Or a small town, with a quaint main street and homes with well-manicured lawns? America’s self-image is evenly split, and both sides are true, in their own way. But when it comes to deciding on where you want to live, big cities are winning out over small towns and rural villages. Cities are growing, but small towns are fading away!

In one of the biggest population migrations in history, people are leaving rural areas and moving into cities. Not just in America, but all over the world. In every developed nation, small towns are going away. What’s happening?

Early Signs: The extinction of small towns was first noticed in Japan. One by one, their small towns lost population, became deserted, and turned into ghost towns. Japan is an ancient country, with equally ancient traditions and laws. Your place in society, where you live, work, and travel were all rigidly defined. After World War II, Japan’s rigid class system was abolished and citizens could move about more freely, both socially and physically.

Japan invested in their train system, making it one of the world’s best, eventually introducing their famous high-speed Bullet Train. Travel became easy, and the governement strongly encouraged travel and tourism. As citizens became less anchored to their hometown, and children moved away, small towns began to shrink.

Education: At the beginning of the 20th century, education was very basic. As the economy developed, more sophisticated goods were produced, requiring a more educated workforce. The best colleges and schools in the world tend to be located in cities, where the concentration of population provides a constant supply of both students and teachers.

In the US, as late as 1970, only 14.1% of men and 8.2% of women graduated from college. But by 2016, college graduations had risen significantly. 33.2% of males and 33.7% of women graduated from college… triple the number from 1970. This rise in education, and especially the rise in female education. Expectations of graduates, of corporations, or everyone… was on the rise.

Employment: Japan was completely devastated by the war. Virtually every factory in Japan was quite literally burned to the ground. New houses, schools, and factories needed to be built. The government not only eliminated the old social hierarchy, it actively encouraged upward social mobility. While their parents may have never left home, their children went away to study at college. Once they were exposed to travel, graduates were easier for businesses to recruit.

As Japan grew into one of the world’s largest economies, the combination of schools and corporations dramatically changed demographics. In the past, even this combination might not have been enough to break the strong family ties of Japan. But a reliable and extensive train system meant that your family was just a high-speed train ride away. By easing the trauma of breaking up families, the transition from multi-generational families to the modern nuclear family was swift.

Other developing nations followed a similar path. A fruitful career was tied to leaving the countryside. Before 1900, many American families broke up in search of prosperity “out West”. But the breakup was usually permanent. By the mid-20th century, children who moved away could visit their old hometown on a train, a car or even a plane. If that was too much trouble, you could always make a long distance phone call. With few barriers to overcome, children left small towns in unprecedented numbers.

Fertility: For a population to grow, women must have a fertility rate of at least 2.1. Which is to say, 2.1 must live until they are at least a year old. The “2” replaces the parents, and the “.1” allows for diseases, accidents, suicides and other events that may prevent a child from reaching adulthood. In the past fertility rates needed to be much higher, because disease killed so many young children.

In antiquity, families had many children, but few survived to adulthood. Modern medicine has eliminated many of the diseases of early childhood. In America in 1915, infant (a year or younger) mortality rate was 100 out of every 1,000 births. Today it is just 5.9. When all of your children grow up, families become smaller… in America and the rest of the world.

Prosperity: There are exceptions, but higher education and greater income go hand in hand with smaller families. Families can spend more money on fewer family members, improving their standard of living. This is the universal model. This is why cities are gaining population, small towns are shrinking, and whole nations have declining population.

Declining population can be reversed, or at least slowed. By immigration. Whether that immigration is from within a nation or from outside, immigration is the best way to offset falling fertility and a rising number of “leavers”. If America did not have robust immigration, our low fertility rate of 1.84 would have already put our population into decline.

In 2004, Japan’s low fertility rate (1.46) plus an anti-immigration policy pushed their population growth to zero. Since then, Japan’s population has been in decline. By 2065, their population will plunge from 127 million to 88 million. Japan’s population will be smaller… and older.

Age: 15% of Americans are over 65. One out of 6 are retired, and 2 out of 6  too young to work, attending school, in the military, or in jail. That leaves just 3 out of 6 to actually work. Historically, that very few. Of course, if we look at Japan, 26% are already over 65. By 2060, 40% of the citizens of Japan will be over 65. That will be a real crisis. It will completely change Japan’s Culture. Not too much later, the same changes will happen in America.

We’ve seen how education and business work best when they are near a large population. The same is true of healthcare. Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare institutions need a big population to thrive. Medical equipment… such as CAT and MRI scanners and various cancer treatment systems… can cost tens of millions of dollars each. It requires a large number of patients, patients that can only be found in big cities, to pay back the cost of this equipment.

Even basic healthcare may not no be possible in a small town. As the workforce shrinks, small towns don’t just run out of waiters and beauticians. Many small towns have just one doctor or lawyer left. When these critical positions are gone, it is very difficult for a community to survive.

Government: If you’re not in or near your state capital, there may not be very many government employees in your town. However, there are two governement facilities that may determine the survival of your town.

When you run our of teens in your town, the high school may close. High schools are often a critical employer in small towns, and the loss of a high school can be a death blow to the town.

Likewise, the post office is a key service for both small towns and big cities. Unfortunately, the USPS is in deep financial trouble, losing nearly $50 billion over the past few years, and falling short in pension funding by billions more. The USPS has put forward plans to return to profitability, each of which requires shutting as much as 50% of all post offices. Small towns would not lose their post office, they would lose many postal services, such as home delivery of mail. In itself, this may not destroy a town, but it adds one more difficulty for residents and employers.

Of course, with new corporate jobs comes higher pay and prestige. But not necessarily a better lifestyle. In Japan, the life of an average corporate worker… the “Salaryman”… is often a high-pressure life, with long hours at work, and a tiny living space at home. Nonetheless, the best-educated workers have been… and continue to be… lured away from small towns to big cities.

The End: There really isn’t any alternative to the extinction of small towns. The number driving change are irreversible. Populations will stall and then decline. There will still be boom towns, but not many. And most small towns will go away.

Most. Not all. Some small towns will survive. Which ones? The ones with a plan. I know that some towns are preparing for the Extinction. I’ve talked to them. Some are focusing on the next generation of “returners”, who left and are coming back. Others are developing innovative events and businesses to revitalize their towns. Yet others have partnered with their best young workers to ensure that “opportunity” isn’t always found somewhere else.

There are thousands of small towns across America that face extinction. What sort of town is your town? Are you prepared to have your town shrink away, or are you ready to fight? Tell us about your plan!

 

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The Retail Apocalypse Has Arrived


Store CLosing

At the start of 2018, America has the lowest unemployment and the best economy in more than a decade. The stock market is at new highs. It feels like the economy is strong. But… that’s not the way it looks. On your own main street, or favorite mall, or nearest shopping district… do you see empty stores? A lot of empty stores? What’s going on? How can a booming economy have a record number of empty stores?

2017 set a record for retail store closings. Radio Shack, Toys r Us, Payless, Gymboree, and True Religion were familiar names in malls across the country. Now they are either filing for bankruptcy or have already closed their doors. 2017 had 8,000 store closures, and 2018 may beat that record.

This is the “Retail Apocolypse.” But it’s not just one thing. It is the culmination of many influences, a “Perfect Storm” of cultural change. Let’s break it down…

Clothing: American clothing has changed. First, we buy less clothing. Partially because casual clothing became the norm at work. We no longer need one wardrobe for work and one for the weekend. Partially because millennials see a big wardrobe as environmentally destructive. All of that leads to the second change. In 1959, Americans spent 26% of their discretionary money on apparel and footwear, compared to 11% now.

This is more than a passing fad. American clothing is largely made offshore, regardless of the brand name. Without the cost of malls and department stores, the same items online can be sold for less.

Online: Why shop online? Convenience is a big issue. Going to the store often takes time. Waiting on a line to pay also takes time. With empty stores, line waiting is often much shorter, but we are also more impatient. Likewise, even large stores cannot stock every item in every size and color. Online, you can quickly search every store in the world for a hard to find item. And, of course, you not only get a better price, you can shop at any time of the day or night.

Ten years ago, few consumers shopped on the Internet. We downloaded videos, emailed, and just begun to try streaming media. In 2000, only half of one percent of us retail sales were online. By 2016, online sales rose to 9%. By 2022 that will double. As more sales move online, traffic in brick and mortar stores will fall. Empty stores are not about the failure of brick and mortar, they are about the success of online merchants.

Amazon is one of the most successful online merchants. But much of their success comes from their merchant services, where many formerly brick and mortar businesses sell their goods online, through Amazon. Not all of the store that closed went out of business. Some just migrated their businesses to where the customers are… online!

Walmart: Not that long ago, Walmart led the last retail expansion. They wiped out many small stores, especially in rural areas. Now, with 98% of their sales still in brick and mortar, Walmart is scrambling to develop an online strategy. It is possible for them to move 20% or 30% of their sales online in the next few years, but it will require cannibalizing and closing a large number of stores.

Bankruptcy: Other stores failed to develop an online model. Big chain stores like Toys R Us are going bankrupt in large numbers. Restaurant chains are dropping so quickly it’s hard to keep track. We can expect dozens of well-known chain stores to expire in the next year.

Malled In America: Real estate developers contributed to the Retail Apocalypse by building too many malls. Research from Cowen and Company shows that mall growth outpaced population growth in America by 40%. US malls were built at 5 times faster than malls in the UK. Ten times faster than in Germany. At some point, that bubble had to burst, and it has.

Anchors: When a new mall is built, the largest and/or best-known tenant is known as the “Anchor”.  This store attracts customers that help support smaller stores in the mall. Intelligently recruited tenants are supposed to create higher foot traffic and profitability for the entire mall. If this theory is right, however, when an anchor leaves the mall could collapse. Which seems to be happening.

Department stores have been rethinking the “Anchor” model. Big department stores have to pay for big leases and must tie up a lot of capital in inventory. And no matter how large the inventory, when you want to get a specific shoe, in your size, it may not be in the store. Online merchants have more merchandise in more sizes and colors. Smaller stores that only stock best selling items, PLUS an online presence, can be a more effective combination.

JC Penny is exploring new options. A store today averages 100,000 square feet. Like other department stores, JC Penny offers “store within store” merchants (especially in cosmetics). A 40,000 square foot store, with proportionally smaller “store within store” merchants, are being tested. If new and redesigned stores can dramatically reduce rent, staffing, and inventory, saving stores from closure. But JC Penny is often an Anchor store. If Anchors downsize, will other mall retailers have the foot traffic to survive?

Cycles: We are in the middle of a new retail cycle. But it’s not the first cycle. The first cycle was probably a bit more than a century ago when Department stores arose in Chicago and New York. The second cycle was caused by designers leaving the department store and creating their own brands in malls. The third cycle was the rise of the superstore, especially Walmart, which eliminated many smalltown stores. We are now in the fourth cycle, which started at least a decade ago when the earliest online merchants connected with customers.

What will the fifth retail cycle look like? The next cycle will kick off when most of our buying is online and mobile. We will buy a lot of products by subscription, or through smart devices that know that we’re out of something. More and more, our behavior will be monitored and our needs anticipated. Because we are ordering on like, and not shopping in a store, more of our goods will be shipped to us.

In cities, that means more urban crowding from more delivery trucks. It also means A LOT of boxes and extra shipping materials. And a much bigger carbon footprint as goods are shipped around the country, instead of carried home from a store a few blocks away.

The fifth retail cycle will be led by whoever wins the war between Walmart, Amazon, and foreign competition like Alibaba. As more millennials “cocoon” at home, working remotely, having food delivered, and generally not leaving their apartments or homes for days at a time, just about everything will be ordered online.

Post-Apocalypse: The bubble has burst and shopping centers and main streets have too many empty retail spaces. In New York City, Steinway street in Queens is a major shopping area. A decade ago, before the global financial collapse, if you wanted to open a retail store you might have to wait for years until space was available. A couple of weeks ago I make a quick survey.

Blocks in New York come in two sizes, Streets and Avenues. From street to street is between 10 and 20 blocks to a mile. Between Avenues it is just 5 or 6 blocks to a mile. Even so, when I counted stores on both sides of one block, I counted 13 empty storefronts. I knew that I would two or three, but the number did surprise me. I tried the next block and counted 17 vacancies.

Unlike other economic downturns, the businesses that remain are doing quite well. This isn’t a typical downturn. Customer preferences have changed. Services… barbers, nail shops, beauty parlors… continue to thrive. Banks are closing obsolete full-service locations, but are rolling out a new generation of more capable ATM’s. Millenials, however, have leapfrogged ATM’s instead using mobile banking apps.

The “Apocolypse” is not a single event or even a moment in time. It is an ongoing disruption and redefinition of retail. Waiting on a line in a big department store is an annoyance. Shopping for the perfect sushi knife in your PJs at 3am is great. And Sad. (Can we call it “Grad”?) New forms of business may fill the empty retail spaces. New technology from Amazon and Google that lets us walk into a store, grab what we want and just walk out, could revitalize retail.

Retail is still very much alive and growing. Over the last century, the definition of retail has changed, and it will continue to change. Just as our needs and expectations change. A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined that there could be so high a demand for “nail shops” for manicures. Who knows what sort of services are about to take over retail?

 

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Is the Real Crisis Too Few Jobs Or Too Many Workers?


crisis

Robots are coming, and they’re going to take your job! Sure. We all know that. Cars will drive themselves. New factories will have all robots and no workers. Your manager will be replaced by an AI. Half of all jobs will go away. Forever. The age of “work” may be coming to an end. Of course, there is another theory.

In 1927 the global population reached 2 billion. Today it is 7.6 billion. By 2100, the population will peak at 11 billion and then fall. 25 nations already have zero growth or a declining population. Worse still, as the world’s population ages, more of the population will be retired. The world is facing a global worker shortage!

A crisis is headed our way, but which one? Will it be too few workers or too few jobs? It’s like a plot from Star Trek “Discovery”, with America caught between alternatives universes! How did this happen? Let’s go back in time and see!

Post War: World War II changed everything! Workers once relied on personal skills and instinct, and productivity came from personal determination and drive. After WWII, science and technology took over. Germany might engineer better tanks and the UK could be more innovative (penicillin, radar, jet engines, computers, even the “Jerry can”). But it was America productivity that won the war.

Before World War II, airplanes were produced by the handsful. By the end of the war, planes were built by the tens of thousands, with each new model dramatically superior to the one it replaced. In just a few years, propeller-driven biplanes were replaced with jets.

The same techniques that won the war were adopted to consumer manufacturing. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners, motorized lawn mowers, and an endless catalog of luxury items became affordable enough for every family.

Peter Drucker, the most influential management theorist of the last century, said that productivity in America rose 50 fold during the 20th century. Everyone could have a job, work a mere 40 hour week, and afford the newest consumer goods. Technology had delivered the age of leisure!

Globalization: The war had destroyed much of the world. America, however, was protected by the natural barrier of the Atlantic ocean. With zero war damage and huge factories built for the war, America was in the perfect position to rebuild the world.

In rebuilding the war-ravaged world, America replaced many Europe brands around the world, becoming the “Factory of the World”, and the Global superpower of the 20th century. But how would America, with just 5% of the world’s population, get the rest of the world back on its feet? The answer was… PRODUCTIVITY!

Technology and scientific management would deliver unheard of levels of productivity. America alone could produce more goods than the entire world once did! The cost of just about everything fell, and prosperity spread across the globe. Everyone wins… at e\least for a while.

The Treadmill: Prosperity did follow, but the world would not stand still. The Population was rising. In 1804 world population was 1 billion, in  1927 it was 2 billion, and in 1960 it reached 3 billion. The world didn’t just have more people, the speed of population growth was accelerating. The speed of growth was accelerating. Developed nations worried about their standard of living, and developing nations worried if they had enough to eat. As we would see in the 20th century, a hungry nation is never very far from revolution, and prosperity does bring peace.

http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/

Factory productivity rose still higher. Agricultural scientists created a “green revolution” that doubled the world’s food supply. There was enough for everyone, but a continuously rising population meant continuous productivity improvements in every business. Factories were automated, workers were freed for more complex tasks, and education standards were raised. A new degree, the MBA, was created to drive higher productivity. Today, every corporation has MBAs and departments to improve productivity.

Continuous improvement not only made goods cheaper and more plentiful, it shrank electronics that could fill a room into a device that fits in your pocket. TVs, computers, cellphones, tablets, and other electronics followed Moore’s law, cutting the cost in half every year or two.

End Of The Begining:  Global population will peak at 11 billion, in 2100. African nations will continue growing for some time, but at least 25 nations have already reached zero growth or have a declining population. But this understates the problem.

America’s population is 325 million and will to grow to 400 million by 2100. But with older citizens and fewer children born, our population should have already declined. Only immigration has kept America growing, preventing massive worker shortages. This could change tomorrow if we rewrite our immigration policy.

Turning Point: We need a growing population because we’re aging. The retired portion of our population is growing. Older citizens need more services. In 1960 just 5% of our economy was in healthcare. By 2025 it will rise to 20%. Restaurants, hotels, house cleaning, and other services have expanded, requiring new workers.

When our workforce transformed from agricultural to factories and services, many ex-farm workers moved from the agricultural South to the industrial North. In the 1970’s, tens of millions of women who were previously excluded from work (and college) joined the workforce. But it still wasn’t enough.

We added computers, and automated, and offshored work. We even turn a blind eye to an estimated 11 million illegal immigration, who performed work that no longer attracted Americans (agriculture, fast food, construction, and caring for our homes). Any serious reductions in immigration (legal and illegal), and we would have a huge hole in the workforce.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/27/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/

Crunch the Numbers: In the mid-1970s, the speed of population growth peaked and then slowed. Today’s growth is just half of that of the ’70s. But corporate expectations were developed during that “peak” period. And we followed a simple system… productivity brought new jobs, new jobs brought more employment, and more employment delivered prosperity. But what happens when productivity continues to speed up, while the market grows more slowly?

http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/

Robot Revolution: Early automation replaced human muscle with machines. Think about how much easier it is to work around your house with an electric sander than a piece of sand paper. Add to that artificial intelligence (AI), and you can replace knowledge workers like lawyers, programmers, doctors, accountants, and managers. If a powered screwdriver is better than a manual one, think about a screwdriver that you just point at the work and it gets done. That’s what automation plus AI will deliver.

A few years ago, an industrial robot cost $150,000. But it needed an additional $300,000 to $450,000 for programming. To perform one job, in one factory. Change the work (even slightly) or move the robot to a new location, and you need to reprogram the robot.

Today’s robots cost less, and are “smart”. They can work out little issues on their own. For bigger tasks, another AI writes most of the programming, rather than relying on expensive human programmers.  This is a gamechanger, lowering the cost and increasing the span of jobs suitable for automation. That’s why experts expect robots to wipe out at least half of the world’s jobs, in just 20 to 30 years.

Our Future: Due to its inexpensive labor, China became the land of outsourcing, China is where most of the world’s “stuff” is made. But the cost of labor has been rising. Now their population is hitting the tipping point where it will shrink. By 2100 China’s workforce will plunge from 1 billion to just 500 million, while the market they serve will more than double in size. Just to keep up, they need a 400% increase in productivity.

The solution is… automation, robots and AI’s. China already buys more industrial robots than any other nation. Now, China is ramping up to be the world’s largest robotic manufacturer. A million robots will be sold every year by the early-2020’s and ten million a year just a few years later.

If each robot replaces just 5 workers, in less than a  decade robots will replace 50 million workers every year. China intends to retain the title of “Factory of the World”, until at least the end of the century. China can only do this if they implement the most advanced automation. That means that China will consume almost every robot they produce for the next few years. By the mid-2020s they can then shift their attention to global sales. China will build… and control… most of the world’s robotic workforce.

Happily Ever After?: Robots will take over. Period. The real question is how fast and with how much disruption. The speed of new automation probably won’t match the speed of workforce decline. But we should try to match these two trends so that disruption doesn’t become disaster.

In the last century, the 40 hour work week became standard. Much of the disruption in our century could be defused by implementing a 30 hour work week. Of course, working fewer hours could raise costs, but adding all those robots will lower cost. So, it’s a Goldilocks world… too hot, too cold, and just right.  This could all end with a happily ever after 22nd century. We just have to make the right choices!

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Written In Sand… The Next Global Shortage has Arrived!


Sand MiningAs the world becomes more globalized, international projects are getting bigger. As a result, the most unexpected shortages can suddenly appear. A few years ago, China went on a building spree, creating a global shortage of scaffolding and construction cranes. As cities compete with farms and recreation for water, shortages are inevitable. But now we face a shortage that could break the foundations of the global economy… sand.

Sand? Yes, that’s right… sand! Sand is a critical component of concrete. And concrete, along with steel, is the literal foundation of civilization. Over the last 20 years, the world was on a building spree. Skyscrapers are now a common sight around the world. Skyscrapers consume a huge amount of concrete. Add to that, concrete plazas, concrete sewers, tunnels, sidewalks, and bridges. Cities need concrete….

… and concrete needs sand! But beaches and deserts are filled with sand? Why can’t that be used for construction? Ironically, desert sand is too fine and too round. It makes an inferior grade of concrete. You might get away with it for a wall around a house, but not in a skyscraper.

Sea sand has its own problems. It may be made of tiny stones (good) or shells (not as good), but it’s all contaminated with salt which is very bad for concrete. There are ways of getting the salt out, but it’s expensive.

The best sand is either river sand or sand deposited under relatively primal forests (by extinct rivers). Mining that sand can be very destructive. And expensive, since the law often requires miners to return the land to its original state. America as just one remaining sand mine, which is set to close in 2020. The sand shortage is a major issue for construction, but it is going to get much worse! And here is why…

Middle East: Some of the world’s tallest buildings are in  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Super skyscrapers are very new to this part of the world. Therefore, there is very little data to know how safe these buildings will be. Especially if local managers cut corners on safety to meet building schedules. If there are problems, it won’t be in the early years, it will happen after the buildings have been around for awhile, and then have to withstand a major storm or an earthquake.

If the right sand is not available, construction will be halted. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, cost $1.76 billion and took 6 years to build. That’s $800,000 a day, but during the middle of the project costs probably peaked around $2 million a day. Not every building is the Burj, but it is easy to see how managers can fold under the pressure, and make bad decisions. Including the use of questionable sand. Similarly, if problems show up later… such as cracks in walls and foundations… will these problems be reported?

The United Arab Emirates has also built whole new islands off of their coast. These islands (starting with Palm island) are for the ultra rich. These islands consumed 94 million cubic meters of sand, scooping up virtually all of the sand within 6 nautical miles of Dubai’s coast. How did they use sea sand? Simple, they didn’t turn the sand into concrete, they just pushed piles of sand together to form islands. This was driven by aesthetics, not engineering.  That means constant maintenance for these man-made islands.

China: While Palm island is a modern miracle of construction, China is still the world’s biggest user of concrete, and will be for decades to come. In less than two decades, China has built over 500 new cities. While China has slowed down in building new cities, they will still keep the global demand for sand high.

Illegal Mining: India is on a similar building spree, driving up competition for local sand.  In fact, India has coined a new term, “Sand Mafia”, to describe all of the illegal sand mining around India and the neighboring nations.  Unfortunately, a lot of local warlords have learned that tearing up the countryside to steal sand it is a very quick way to make a lot of money.

Climate Change: “Storms of the Century” now happen several times a year. During a storm, sand is scoured from beaches and dunes and swept into the sea. Further inland, flooding destroys homes, and rebuilding requires sand. Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico have put further pressure on the global sand market. As the weather gets wilder, demand will continue to rise.

Fracking: The price of oil is rising! With oil is above $50 a barrel, closed wellheads are reopening, especially in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. In the Bakken, oil is Fracked, requiring Fracking fluid… mostly water and sand. More of America’s power, for at least the next two decades, will rely on Fracking, and sand.

Belt and Road Initiative: China is leading the world’s largest construction project, the Belt and Road Initiative (or BRI).  This project runs through 65 nations, with tens of thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of new railroad lines, and scores of seaports, with an estimated cost of $8 trillion dollars. The BRI will require more sand than anything in the history of the world.

Silk Road Economy: The BRI is staggeringly huge, but it is nothing compared to all of the projects that it will spin off. The BRI, also called the New Silk Road, will accelerate the globalization of developed and developing nations while kickstarting the development of the poorest nations on earth. The BRI will build new railroads and seaports, but these economic centers will, in turn, employ tens of millions of people. This means hundreds of new cities will be built, along with thousands of power plants and factories, and scores of millions of new homes. All of which require sand, steel, and concrete.

Alternatives: We’ve exhausted the world’s supply of sand. Yet, over the next decade, we will accelerate construction. Economic pressure will force the world to open up new sand mining sites. The demand will be so high that even banned practices, such as dredging rivers for sand, may return. But there is an alternative! if you cannot find sand, make it!

For years, it has been possible make artificial sand from crushed rocks, but the quality is often uneven. Artificial sand improved over time, but skyscrapers keep getting taller and specifications for sand more demanding. Construction sand needs to be of ever higher quality, which is increasingly difficult to find.

A new form of synthetic sand is made from glass and can be made to very high standards. But it is not yet clear how much glass/sand can be produced. Only a fraction of waste glass is collected and sent to recycling facilities, and only a third of the glass that is collected is actually recycled. Glass based sand may substitute for the natural kind, but we don’t yet know how much we can make or what it will cost.

We shouldn’t worry about the price too much. The cost of sand has gone through as many ups and downs as the price of oil. In 2016 the cost of a ton of sand was $15-$20 but rose to $40 in late 2017. That’s not even the peak price of $60 to $70 a ton in 2014, China was still building new cities and fracking was big. Once the BRI ramps up, construction managers will pay any price to get the sand they need.

The Future of Sand: The economic forces that are driving the need for sand will become much greater in the early 2020s. Yet, at that time America will close it’s last active sand mine, for environmental issues. There is no simple or cheap solution to the sand shortage. Crushed rock and glass based sand will help, but it probably won’t be enough.

If there were more forms of industrial or post-consumer waste that could substitute for sand, it would be a win-win. A few years ago when China was at the peak of it’s building spree, it had a similar shortage of portland cement, another critical ingredient in concrete. While China lacked portland cement, it had a chemically similar waste product from coal power plants… fly ash. China successfully turned this nuisance waste product into a valuable new resource.

Other coal waste products, such as bottom ash, are being explored as replacements or partial replacements for sand. Other industrial waste products from the iron and copper smelting, also appear to be usable in commercial concrete. With more research, many more materials are likely to be found.

Turning waste glass into synthetic sand is a good start, but we need to find many other waste products to make high-quality concrete. Use of industrial waste would be highly y beneficial in Eastern Europe, where decades of Soviet-era coal and smelting tailings might finally be removed and turned into One Band One Road Initiative construction projects.

Cleaning up the environment and creating new construction jobs is a win/win. But if we want to keep the economy humming and avoid the next big shortage, we need to speed up research and create sand alternatives. If not, well… civilization is going to need a new foundation!

 

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