Jobs in Name Only

Jobs took center stage at President Obama’s State of the Union address last night, and we’re not just talking about how to create more of them.

In a bizarrely symbiotic moment, Obama and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered the GOP’s rebuttal to the president’s speech, both chose to honor the late Apple founder Steve Jobs as an iconic example of the kind of American entrepreneurship that is sorely needed to pull the nation out of its deep chasm of underemployment.

Looking up at Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell, who was given a seat of honor next to First Lady Michelle Obama, the president declared that “we should support everyone who’s willing to work and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs.”

Gov. Daniels, in his rebuttal, cited the Apple visionary’s job-creating track record in stark contrast to the spotty results of government stimulus programs: “The late Steve Jobs — what a fitting name he had — created more of them than all those stimulus dollars the president borrowed and blew,” he said.

To which we can only ask: What are these guys smoking?

If you own one of the 70 million iPhones or 30 million iPads now in use, we recommend you activate your handy New York Times app and flick over to an opus about Apple’s hiring practices the nation’s newspaper of record published last week.

There’s no question the tech start-up Steve Jobs and his buddy Steve Wozniak created in their garage more than 30 years ago is today one of the most successful job-creating juggernauts on the planet. Counting direct and indirect jobs, including the contractors who produce and assemble millions of iPhones, iPads and other sparkling gizmos for Apple, the Cupertino, CA-based giant currently employs more than 760,000 people worldwide.

Unfortunately, only 43,000 of these positions are in the United States. More than 700,000 Apple jobs reside in China.

Apple officials, explaining why the company chose to outsource virtually all of its manufacturing and supply chain to China, cited the speed and flexibility of Chinese production they say cannot be matched in the U.S.  When Apple initially toured production facilities in China, the Chinese already were in the process of constructing new wings in anticipation of receiving Apple’s business. Apple estimated it needed 8.700 industrial engineers to oversee iPhone production; China said it could it could provide them in 15 days, at almost no cost to Apple. On-site dormitories had already been constructed, ensuring that factory workers would be available 24 hours a day. The Chinese government also agreed without hesitation to underwrite the cost of creating a components supply-chain for Apple, instantly spawning new industries as necessary.

An anecdote in the Times’ article offers a mindboggling example of Chinese flexible manufacturing in action: Apple execs recalled how Steve Jobs demanded major design changes in the original iPhone prototype in 2007 less than a month before the revolutionary smartphone was scheduled to appear in stores. Summoning his top lieutenants to his office, Jobs angrily showed them scratches that had marred the iPhone’s plastic touchscreen after he kept it in his pocket for a few days with his car keys. Jobs demanded the plastic component be replaced with scratch-resistant glass, a major design change that normally would have taken months to execute.

Within hours, a sample of a new glass screen for the iPhone was sent around the world to Apple’s primary Chinese contractor, Foxconn. Taiwan-based Foxconn has thirteen factories in nine mainland cities, the most productive of which is a huge complex in Longhua, Shenzhen, near Guangzhou. Up to 450,000 workers are jammed into a walled campus at the Longhua Science & Technology Park, informally referred to as Foxconn City. The workers live in dorms on the 1.2-square-mile complex, which has its own grocery store, bank and hospital.

The touchscreen replacement part arrived at Foxconn City around midnight. A foreman woke up 8,000 workers and ordered them to report immediately to the factory floor. According to the story, “each worker was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames.”

Within 96 hours of Jobs’ complaint, the Chinese factory was producing more than 10,000 iPhones with glass touchscreens per day.

There were several disturbing facts about Foxconn City the Times neglected to mention in its opus. If iPhone users flick over to their browsers and Google up the phrase “Foxconn suicides,” here’s what pops up:

— About 150 Chinese workers at Foxconn recently spent two days perched on the roof of their three-floor plant in Wuhan. The workers were threatening to commit suicide by leaping from the roof to protest their working conditions. They were coaxed down by Chinese Communist Party officials.

— Foxconn has had a grim history of suicides at its Chinese factories. A suicide cluster in 2010 involved 18 workers throwing themselves from the tops of the company’s buildings, resulting in 14 deaths. In the aftermath of these suicides, we’re told, Foxconn installed safety nets along the edges of some of its factory roofs to catch the jumpers and hired counselors to help its workers adjust to the factory’s extreme work conditions.

Presumably, these “counselors” were officials of the Chinese Communist Party, who no doubt offered the protesting workers the opportunity to undergo a 20-year attitude adjustment in the dungeon of a nearby political prison.

Memo to Barack and Mitch: if you think American businesses should emulate a company that outsources its jobs to a dictatorship that subsidizes all of it industries and employs slave labor, we’ve already got an app for that.


[Full disclosure: This blog post was written on a MacBook Pro laptop.]