"Labor is so expensive," said Young, whose great-grandfather started farming row crops in Kern County in 1910. "There's their wages, truck, insurance, workers' comp and the safety regulations. We went to a high-value crop that needed less labor input."
Young estimates that at seasonal peaks, he now employs 70% fewer workers.
That sentiment isn't unique to farming. Forced to cut costs during the recession, employers across the country are looking at ways to avoid hiring. They've accelerated use of computers and technology, replacing administrative assistants with software, cashiers with self-service kiosks and laborers with machines.
These structural changes mean some jobs that disappeared during the recession may never come back. Productivity gains are good for company profits and help the economy grow over the long run. But in the short term, the shift is exacerbating America's jobless recovery.
"Recessions tend to act as ratchets; they'll often speed the pace of fundamental changes that were going on in the economy anyway," said Erica Groshen, vice president and director of regional affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Ditching workers is an appealing prospect to many California farmers. Few states have minimum wages higher than California's $8 an hour. The heightened focus on workers' immigration status has increased farmers' administrative burden.
With the help of machines, though, growers can continue to boost output while reducing headcount. Farm labor in California has fallen 11% over the last decade, yet cultivation of heavily automated crops soared over the same period: almond production has more than doubled, to 1.6 billion pounds.
"If cheap technology is available, you substitute technology for people," said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in Boston.
Automation has been a steady progression since the Industrial Revolution. Still, laying off workers is never easy. Recessions give companies a motive to move more swiftly than they otherwise might have to cut staff, outsource work to cheaper locations and implement labor-saving technology, Sinai said. When sales pick up, companies can help profits rise quickly by keeping a lid on hiring.
That's part of the reason that earnings at some large companies have soared over the last year while job creation has lagged behind. In August, U.S. private sector employers added 67,000 jobs, far fewer than the 100,000 needed to keep pace with population growth.
Capital intensity — how much a firm relies on software, tools and machinery — contributed 1.6% to productivity gains from 2007 to 2008 after growing just 1% from 2000 to 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This is something I've touched on before (see here and here).