The Last Word: More Hours are Half the Story

October 1, 2007
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If it seems as if you are spending more time in the office, you are correct. That should be no surprise for Quality Magazine subscribers. In July, our Quality State of the Profession Survey revealed that 33% of you experienced an increase of work hours during the past year and 28% expect your work hours to increase during 2008.

A study by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) found that U.S. workers lead Europe and most other industrialized countries in hours spent at the office, factory and on farms. The U.S. employee put in an average of 1,806 hours of work per person per year during 2006. That compared to 1,407 for Norway and 1,564 for France. But has the increased time spent on the job resulted in positive news?

Yes. According to the ILO, U.S. workers lead the world in labor productivity. The United States generates $63,885 of wealth per person per year. So, the extra hours at work are producing greater productivity and wealth? Hours on the job are only part of the picture. The annual hours worked per person in Asia far surpasses what is worked in the United States. According to the ILO, South Korea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Thailand all surpassed 2,200 average hours per worker per year. None of these areas come close to U.S. productivity levels. The difference is not working harder; the difference is working “smarter.”

According to Jose Manuel Salazar, ILO’s head of employment, increased productivity in the United States has a large part to do with the use of advanced information and communications technologies, company organization, a high degree of competition found in the United States and the extension of trade investment abroad.

These characteristics and tools, according to Salazar, penetrate far more of the U.S. workplace than in any other part of the world. The 2007 Quality State of the Profession Survey revealed that nearly 50% of quality professionals spend their time researching new methods and technologies to improve their manufacturing processes. Nearly 80% spend their time actually implementing solutions to problems. This bodes well for U.S. manufacturers staying ahead of competition from other countries. The very innovativeness, competitiveness, organizational structure advantages and global approach that set the United States apart as a leader are slow to translate to other cultures.

For example, while the average industrial worker in China produces $12,642 worth of output per person per year-which is eight times more than he generated in 1980-a Chinese laborer in the farm and fisheries sector contributes only $910 per year. With China employing nearly 45% of its population in farming, fishing and agriculture at the end of 2006, it will be awhile before it catches up with the United States in productivity and wealth output, despite the ILO report which states productivity has doubled in the past decade. While hours and productivity increased in many of these countries, there is a significant amount of the workforce not yet benefiting from the advancements in the manufacturing sector.

It’s hard to know how this disparity will play out. The ILO sees the gap between the rich and poor countries as being of great concern. Certainly, from a moral and humanitarian perspective it’s hard to argue that such disparity can’t be solved. And from an economic standpoint, increasing worker productivity in poorer countries translates to a better economic climate in that country and further fuels economic growth. The difference is in how the United Nations would remedy the disparity vs. how a more capitalistic approach would work. The former tends toward handouts at the expense of richer nations, while the latter provides resources that help poorer nations better themselves and sets the stage for future growth, and generates wealth to make the investment economically worthwhile for the richer nation.

Quality and manufacturing professionals in the United States should continue to do what they are doing to advance productivity. Keep putting in the hours. Continue to research and implement new solutions to manufacturing challenges. Despite ILO fears about a widening gap between rich and poor countries, by richer countries pushing ahead with strategies that enhance productivity, even the poorest countries will benefit. They will see productivity increase, albeit at a slower rate, because the global nature of manufacturing will force productivity enhancements their way.

Share your thoughts about productivity improvements and the time you spend on them. Let me know at williamst@qualitymag.com.

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