Working hard … yet hardly getting ahead.

Many full-time workers in the 25-35 age group with college training don’t need reminding that they’re struggling to balance paying for student loans while at the same time attempting to have decent housing and handling their day-to-day expenses.

I’m not in that age group, but our two children are – and I can see from their friends and work colleagues just how much of a challenge it is for many of them to balance these competing necessities.

One way to deal with the challenge is to settle for the sardine-like living arrangements one encounters in quite a few urban areas, with anywhere from three to six people residing in the same (medium-sized) apartment or (small) house.

Somehow, things just didn’t see so difficult for me “back in the day.” Of course, the entirety of my student loans following college amounted to a monthly payment of $31.28, with seven years to pay it off.

First apartment — a $185 per month rental.

And my first apartment – a one-bedroom flat in an elegant 1920’s building, complete with a beautiful lobby and old-fashioned glam elevator, cost me a mere $185 per month.

Not only that, it was only a five-minute bus ride to my downtown banking job.

Now, a newly released analysis published by the American Consumer’s Newsletter helps quantify the different reality for today’s younger workers.

What the data show is that a college degree does continue to provide higher earnings for younger workers compared to those without one.

But … it also reveals that adjusted for inflation, their earnings are lower than their college-educated counterparts in the past.

According to a National Center for Education Statistics analysis as published by the AC Newsletter, here’s a summary of the median earnings differences for male full-time workers in the 25-34 age cohort, comparing 2016 to the year 2000 in inflation-adjusted dollars:

  • Master’s or higher degree: $71,640 … down 6.4% from 2000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $56,960 … down 8.8%
  • Associate’s degree: $43,000 … down 11.8%
  • Some college, but no degree: $37,980 … down 14.3%
  • High school degree: $34,750 … down 13.6%
  • High school dropout: $28,560 … up 2.8%

Thus, among full-time male workers across all education levels, only high school dropouts have experienced a real increase in earnings between 2000 and 2016.

Among female workers, the trends are a little better, but still hardly impressive – and they also start from lower 2000 income levels to begin with:

  • Master’s or higher degree: $57,690 … down 0.5% from 2000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $44,990 … down 7.5%
  • Associate’s degree: $31,870 … down 12.0%
  • Some college, but no degree: $29,980 … down 13.8%
  • High school degree: $28,000 … down 7.2%
  • High school dropout: $21,900 … up 5.0%

What’s even more challenging for workers carrying student loan debt is that those debt levels are higher than ever – often substantially so.

According to a Brookings Institution comparative study, fewer than 5% of students leaving school in 2000 carried more than $50,000 in student loan debt. In inflation-adjusted terms, by 2014, that percentage had risen to ~17%.

Looked at another way, ~40% of borrowers are carrying student loan debt balances exceeding $25,000. It doesn’t take a finance whiz to figure out how big of a hit that is out of a worker’s paycheck.

It makes the some of today’s realities: people living at home longer following college; having frat- or sorority-like living arrangements; putting off plans to purchase a home, or even putting off marriage plans – all the more understandable.

And I’m not exactly sure what the remedy is, either. When it comes to overburdened education debt, it isn’t as if people can go back and rewrite the script very easily.

Where Robots Are Getting Ready to Run the Show

The Brookings Institution has just published a fascinating map that tells us a good deal about what is happening with American manufacturing today.

Headlined “Where the Robots Are,” the map graphically illustrates that as of 2015, nearly one-third of America’s 233,000+ industrial robots are being put to use in just three states:

  • Michigan: ~12% of all industrial robots working in the United States
  • Ohio: ~9%
  • Indiana: ~8%

It isn’t surprising that these three states correlate with the historic heart of the automotive industry in America.

Not coincidentally, those same states also registered a massive lurch towards the political part of the candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election who spoke most vociferously about the loss of American manufacturing jobs.

The Brookings map, which plots industrial robot density per 1,000 workers, shows that robots are being used throughout the country, but that the Great Lakes Region is home to the highest density of them.

Toledo, OH has the honor of being the “Top 100” metro area with the highest distribution of industrial robots: nine per 1,000 workers.  To make it to the top of the list, Toledo’s robot volume jumped from around 700 units in 2010 to nearly 2,400 in 2015, representing an average increase of nearly 30% each year.

For the record, here are the Top 10 metropolitan markets among the 100 largest, ranked in terms of their industrial robot exposure.  They’re mid-continent markets all:

  • Toledo, OH: 9.0 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Detroit, MI: 8.5
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 6.3
  • Louisville, KY: 5.1
  • Nashville, TN: 4.8
  • Youngstown-Warren, OH: 4.5
  • Jackson, MS: 4.3
  • Greenville, SC: 4.2
  • Ogden, UT: 4.2
  • Knoxville, TN: 3.7

In terms of where industrial robots are very low to practically non-existent within the largest American metropolitan markets, look to the coasts:

  • Ft. Myers, FL: 0.2 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Honolulu, HI: 0.2
  • Las Vegas, NV: 0.2
  • Washington, DC: 0.3
  • Jacksonville, FL: 0.4
  • Miami, FL: 0.4
  • Richmond, VA: 0.4
  • New Orleans, LA: 0.5
  • New York, NY: 0.5
  • Orlando, FL: 0.5

When one consider that the automotive industry is the biggest user of industrial robots – the International Federation of Robotics estimates that the industry accounts for nearly 40% of all industrial robots in use worldwide – it’s obvious how the Midwest region could end up being the epicenter of robotic manufacturing activity in the United States.

It should come as no surprise, either, that investments in robots are continuing to grow. The Boston Consulting Group has concluded that a robot typically costs only about one-third as much to “employ” as a human worker who is doing the same job tasks.

In another decade or so, the cost disparity will likely be much greater.

On the other hand, two MIT economists maintain that the impact of industrial robots on the volume of available jobs isn’t nearly as dire as many people might think. According to Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo:

“Indicators of automation (non-robot IT investment) are positively correlated or neutral with regard to employment. So even if robots displace some jobs in a given commuting zone, other automation (which presumably dwarfs robot automation in the scale of investment) creates many more jobs.”

What do you think? Are Messrs. Acemoglu and Restrepo on point here – or are they off by miles?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

A Generational Shift within the American Workforce

bmI’ve blogged before about the cultural differences between older and younger Americans in the workforce. Some observers consider the differences to be of historic significance compared to previous eras, due to the confluence of various “macro” forces driving change at an extraordinary pace.

And somewhere along the way when few were looking, the millennial generation has now become the largest cohort in the American workforce.

And it isn’t even a close call: As of this year, millennials make up nearly 45% of all American workers, whereas baby boomer generation now comprises just over a quarter of the workforce.

According to a new report by management training and consulting firm RainmakerThinking titled The Great Generational Shift, there are actually seven groups of people currently in the workplace at this moment in time:

  • Pre-Baby Boomers (born before 1946): ~1% of the American workforce
  • Baby Boomers first wave (born 1946-1954): ~11%
  • Baby Boomers second wave (born 1955-1964): ~16%
  • GenXers (born 1965-1977): ~27%
  • Millennials first wave (born 1978-1989): ~27%
  • Millennials second wave (born 1990-2000): ~17%
  • Post-Millennials (born after 2000): ~1%

roowPersonally, I don’t know anyone born before 1946 who is still in the workforce, but there are undoubtedly a few of them — one out of every 100, to be precise.

But the older members of the Baby Boomer generation are fast cycling out of the workforce as well, with more than 10,000 of them turning 70 years old every day.

By the year 2020, the “first wave” Boomers are expected to be only around 6% of the workforce.  Meanwhile, Millennials are on track to represent more than 50% of the workforce by 2020.

Now, that makes some of us feel old!

The Great Generational Shift report can be downloaded here.

For physicians on the front lines, burnout is a real concern.

bdoIf you’re like many people, you may have begun to notice some telling changes in the “atmospherics” you encounter in your visits to the doctor’s office.

Perhaps the signs are just subtle, but things seem to be a little more stressed in the office – and a little less comforting for patients.

With the big changes happening in how healthcare services are delivered and how care providers are compensated, perhaps those changes are to be expected.

But a new survey of more than 500 physicians by InCrowd, a Boston-based market intelligence company focusing on the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life sciences fields, points to some unwelcome “collateral damage” that has to be concerning to everyone.

According to the InCrowd research results, three-fourths of the physicians surveyed do not feel that their healthcare facility or practice is doing enough to address the issue of physician burnout.

For the purposes of the research, burnout was defined as “decreased enthusiasm for work, depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”

If three-quarters of the physicians think that too little attention is being paid to burnout issues, that may be one explanation for the changes in the “dynamics” many patients sense when they pay a visit to their doctor.

This doesn’t mean that the majority of physicians feel that they themselves have experienced burnout. But in two particular physician categories – emergency care and primary care – nearly 60% of the physicians surveyed reported that they had personally experienced burnout.

And most of the remaining respondents know other physicians who have experienced the same.

While burnout may be a more extreme condition, for many physicians the average day presents any number of challenges and frustrations. Nearly four in ten respondents reported that they “feel frustrated” by their work at least a few times weekly — or even every day.

dtThe two biggest contributors to this frustration? Time pressures, and working with electronic medical records.

Perhaps the most startling finding from the InCrowd survey is that ~58% of the physician respondents say that they’re either unsure or wouldn’t recommend a career in medicine to a family member or child.

To me, that finding says volumes. When a profession goes from being the object of aspiration to something to be avoided … we really do have a problem.

What’s been your experience at your doctor’s office on recent visits?  Do you sense a degree of tension or stress that’s more than before?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Another for-profit higher educational institution bites the dust …

it

Last week, ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit higher educational institution enrolling ~40,000 students on more than 130 campuses across the country, announced that it is shutting down, while also laying off the lion’s share of its more than 8,000 employees.

This development comes hard on the heels of the closure of Corinthian Colleges last year. Together, it raises the question as to whether such “glorified trade schools” are doing any kind of service to students who seek to better themselves but who don’t have the scholastic record – or the money – to attend traditional two-year or four-year colleges.

tlpThere’s no question of the pent-up demand for higher learning. Guidance counselors push continued schooling as the next logical step for high school students, and society in general promotes a college education as the ticket to the good life.

For-profit colleges have benefited greatly from an environment which prizes higher education as the next logical step for high school graduates, and during the Great Recession beginning eight years ago, these schools continued to promote their curricula heavily while churning out more students into what was a very weak job market.

Students graduating from not-for-profit institutions had a hard enough time landing employment in their chosen fields … and for graduates of ITT, Corinthian and other such schools it was even worse.

corinthian_colleges_logoThe U.S. Department of Education had had its eye on both ITT and Corinthian for a number of years. Becoming alarmed at the inability of graduates to pay off their federally funded student loans, the Department ultimately banned both schools from enrolling any new students who rely on federal financial aid – which was nearly all of them, of course.

An angry ITT Technical Institute pronounced the sanctions unwarranted, inappropriate and unconstitutional – amounting to a death sentence.

A news release from the school stated, “These unwarranted actions, taken without proving a single allegation, are a lawless execution.”

As is often the case in such situations, there’s more than meets the eye. At the same time, ITT Technical Institute is also facing fraud charges from the SEC plus a lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Not only that, the institution has been under investigation at the state level in 19 different jurisdictions.

Academic accreditation is also an issue, as the ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools) determined that the school was not in compliance with ACICS’ accreditation criteria.  ACICS cited a whole range of questionable practices in admissions, recruitment standards, retention, job placement and institutional integrity.

The school itself, using aggressive and pervasive advertising while pushing its “power packed studies” in fields such as IT, electronics, CAD design and health services, also informed prospective enrollees that credits earned at ITT Technical Institute would be “unlikely to transfer.”

This sorry state of affairs at ITT-TI now makes it that much more difficult for ~40,000 students to pursue their career goals. It’s yet another example of how a laudatory mission can lead to negative consequences for the very people who need help in launching their working lives the most.

Ben Miller, who is a director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, puts the blame nowhere but on the school:

“Years of mismanagement by ITT leadership put it in a position where the Education Department’s action was necessary.”

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see the degree to which other for-profit institutions with far-flung operations – Brightwood/Tesst, Capella, Strayer, the University of Phoenix and others – will fare under the klieg lights of heightened scrutiny.

Are U.S. warehouse jobs destined to go the way of manufacturing employment?

Even as manufacturing jobs have plateaued or fallen in certain communities, one of the employment bright spots has been the rise of distribution centers and super warehouses constructed by Amazon and other mega retailers to accommodate the steady rise of online shopping.

In my own region, the opening of Amazon distribution centers in Maryland and Delaware were met with accolades by local business development officials, who figured that new employment opportunities for entry level workers would soon follow.

And they have … to a degree. But what many people might not have expected was the rapid rise of robotics usage in warehouse operations.

In just the past few years, Amazon has quietly gone about purchasing and introducing more than 30,000 Kiva robots for many of its warehouses, where the equipment has reduced operating expenses by approximately 20%, according to Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service.

An analysis by Deutsche Bank estimates that adding robots to a new Amazon warehouse saves approximately $22 million in fulfillment expenses, which is why Amazon is moving ahead with plans to introduce robots in the remaining 100 or so of its distribution centers that are still without them.

Once in place, it’s estimated that Amazon will save an additional $2.5 billion in operating expenses at these 100 facilities.

Of course, robots aren’t exactly inexpensive pieces of equipment. But with the operational savings involved, it’s clear that adding this kind of automation to warehousing is kind of a slam-dunk decision.

Which helps explain another move that Amazon made in 2012. It decided to purchase the company that makes Kiva robots — for a cool $775 million.  And then it did something else equally noteworthy:  it ceased the sale of Kiva robots to anyone outside the Amazon family.

Because Kiva was pretty much the only game in town when it came to robotics designed for warehouse pick-and-ship functions, Amazon’s move put all other warehouse operations at a serious disadvantage.

That in turn created a stampede to develop alternative sources of supply for robots. It’s taken about four years, but today there are credible alternatives to Kiva brand robots now entering the market.  Amazon’s uneven playing field is getting ready to become a lot more level now.

But the other result of this “robotics arms race” is the sudden plenteous availability of new robot equipment, which companies like Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart are set to exploit.

The people who are slated to be the odd people out are … warehouse workers.

The impact could well be dramatic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 860,000 warehouse workers in the United States today, and they earn an average wage of approximately $12 per hour.

Not only is the rise of robot usage threatening these jobs, thanks to the sharp increase of minimum wage rates in areas near to some major urban centers is putting the squeeze on hiring from a wholly different direction. It’s a perfect storm the seems destined to blow a hole in warehouse employment levels in the coming years.

Thinking back to what happened to manufacturing jobs in this country, it’s seems we’ve seen this movie before …

A nation of “haves” vs. “have-nots”? Gallup tests the perceptions.

pictureIn any presidential political season, there’s always plenty of rhetoric about the American economy, how well it’s performing for the average voter, and people’s perceptions of how they’re doing socioeconomically.

As it turns out, the Gallup Survey has been testing this issue annually for years now — going all the way back to 1988.

The question posed to Americans in Gallup’s surveys is a simple one: Do you consider yourself personally to be part of the “haves” or “have-nots” in America?

Gallup’s latest survey was fielded in July 2015.  Nearly 2,300 U.S. adults aged 18 and older were part of the research.

In response to the “haves vs. have-nots” question, ~58% of respondents considered themselves to be “haves” in U.S. society, while ~38% placed themselves in the “have-nots” segment. (The remaining ~14% see themselves borderline between the two, or they don’t have an opinion.)

Over time, Gallup has found that the percentage of Americans who perceive themselves to be part of the “have-nots” in society rose pretty steadily from 1988 to 1998, but since that time the percentages have leveled off — even during the worst years of the Great Recession from 2009-2011.

And so, the “haves” percentage has fluctuated in a tight band between 57% and 60% in each year since the late 1990s.

It seems that heightened discussions about social inequality in America haven’t resulted in a higher percentage of people thinking that they are on the less fortunate side of the country’s socioeconomic divide.

However, considering that the latest Gallup survey was conducted in July 2015 — and that since that time there have been more news events drawing attention to the issues of social justice — one wonders if we may be on the cusp of some changing thinking on the subject.

Another persistent finding in Gallup’s surveys is this:  Even among families of quite modest means (annual household incomes of $35,000 or lower), only a little more than half in that segment consider themselves to be part of the “have-nots” group.

Education-wise, the survey findings are similar, with fewer than half of the respondents who don’t possess college degrees considering themselves part of the “have-nots” segment.

In reporting on the Gallup survey results, an article published in the November 2015 issue of Quirk’s Marketing Research Review magazine stated:

“The stratification of U.S. society into unequal socioeconomic groups has long been a fixture of philosophic, political and cultural debate. It appears to have remained or even expanded as a fairly dominant leitmotif in the ongoing 2016 election, particularly among the Democratic presidential candidates. 

[Nevertheless,] the results … in this analysis show that a majority of U.S. adults do not think of American society as being divided along economic lines, and a slightly higher percentage say that if society is divided, they personally are on the ‘haves’ side of the equation rather than the ‘have-nots.'”

More information about the Gallup survey results can be viewed here.

What are your thoughts? Do the perceptions Americans have of socioeconomic inequality — or the lack of it — match the reality?  Or are we poised to see some new significant shifts in the way Americans view socioeconomic divisions in this country?