For Anthony Nighswander, rock-bottom unemployment is both a headache and an opportunity. For businesses and workers, it could be the key to reversing one of the country’s most vexing economic problems: slow productivity growth.
Mr. Nighswander is president of APT Manufacturing Solutions, which builds and installs robotic equipment to help other manufacturers automate their assembly lines. Lately, business has been booming: With the unemployment rate now below 4 percent, he says he gets calls every day from companies looking for robots to help ease their labor crunch.
The problem is that Mr. Nighswander faces a hiring challenge in his own business, especially because, in this town of fewer than 4,000 people near the Indiana border, the pool of skilled workers is shallow. But rather than turn to robots himself, he has adopted a lower-tech solution: training. APT has begun offering apprenticeships, covering the cost of college for its workers, and three years ago it started teaching manufacturing skills to high school students.
“I never thought that I would be training high school students in our facilities,” Mr. Nighswander said. “What I knew was that I was in survival mode. I knew the orders for robots and for automation were coming in faster than I could get the jobs out.”
That kind of urgency could prove to be a powerful economic force. The investments in training and automation by Mr. Nighswander and his customers should, over time, make their companies more productive. Multiplied across thousands of companies, those decisions could have benefits for companies and workers that endure even after today’s hot economy inevitably cools.
Productivity — how much value the economy generates in an average hour of work — gets less public attention than more intuitive economic concepts such as employment and wages, but it may be even more fundamental.
Rising productivity — whether through better technology, more educated workers or smarter business strategies — is why people’s economic fortunes, on average, improve over time. When productivity growth is strong, companies can afford to pay workers more without eating into their own profit margins, letting a rising tide lift all boats.
Since the end of the Great Recession, however — and, to a lesser extent, even during the stronger economic times that preceded it — productivity growth has been confoundingly weak, forcing business owners and workers to compete over a relatively meager sliver of economic growth. There have been peaks and valleys, but not since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s has the American economy consistently delivered productivity growth above 2 percent a year.
Now some economists think a rebound could be on the way. For most of the recovery, wage growth has been anemic, suggesting companies faced relatively little pressure to invest in automation or to find other ways to squeeze more production out of workers. But as the labor market tightens, companies’ incentives could be changing.