We’ve never been here before

A map of the United States showing each state’s largest employer was making the rounds recently on social media. It’s a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. For example, the largest employer in 22 of the 50 states is Walmart. The largest employer in most of the rest of them falls into two categories: health care and universities. In only one case was a manufacturer at the top, and that is Boeing, the biggest single employer in Washington State. A casino tops the list in Nevada and a grocery store chain in Maine. And that’s it.
There’s no reason why this should be alarming. But it does raise all sorts of questions. One of them is that if the biggest industry in the country is selling things to other people, many of whom earn their money selling things to other people, how is this model sustainable? The same question goes for a health care provider. Where’s all the money coming from to sustain that? From Walmart employees?
Maybe an economist can figure it out. We can’t.
The same information, by the way, does not appear to be easily available for Canadian provinces. Statistics Canada has employment by general industry category, but nothing on the biggest single employers by province. The biggest employer in the country, according to reportonbusiness.com is Loblaw, the grocery firm, with 122,000 people on the payroll. Number two is Onex, an investment firm. It has 98,000 employees! Number three on the list is Bombardier, with 80,000. This leads us to a partial answer to the above question of where the money comes from to sustain such large employment; in the case of Bombardier, it comes from you and me, the humble taxpayers. One suspects there’s a lot of that going on. In the case of old-fashioned manufacturing, there is probably no other way to insure it doesn’t all migrate to where labour is cheaper. That has been going on for decades, leaving us with what? Resource extraction, of course. You can’t out-source that. But if it can be made cheaper elsewhere, somebody is going to do it. A fellow was lamenting not long ago that Ontario used to be a powerhouse of manufacturing, but now “It’s only assembling things made elsewhere and warehousing.”
The warehousing might be safe. But the trends indicate people with jobs on assembly lines shouldn’t feel too comfortable.
This type of conversation always leads to big questions such as: ‘How can we maintain our lifestyle with all the manufacturing jobs going overseas? Innovation is one answer. Coming up with new products and services people didn’t know they needed and that they will pay for. Everybody’s in that game, and chances are really good you are using products and services made by ill-paid folks in a sweaty room in Bangladesh. That’s the way it goes. You can feel good if you want to about helping to provide a job for the breadwinner of a family of nine. Or bad because they are still so much poorer than you. For now.
Where it all might be going is anybody’s guess. Because we’ve never actually been here before.

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