With Automation, Some Jobs Are On Their Way Out

As Dr. Ian Malcolm reminds us in the movie, Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” This sentiment continues to ring true as the race (as it is to some, but to others, it is a snail’s pace) to implement automation in the workforce heats up. Certain jobs and skills that utilize repetitive motions have been phased out and replaced with mechanical means. But this also raises the question of whether, just because we can speed up certain processes, should we? It could be argued that a machine doing it may not result in a better process or more efficiency.

As much as automation and the labor market are supposed to complement one another-in the sense that designing machines to perform simple tasks, it could clear up time for humans to focus on more intelligent actions-they seem to more often be at odds with one another, with opposing endgames. In the past, automation seemed to only impact the low-skilled or repetitive action industry (e.g. assembly line worker or cashier). But this has changed. Technology has become much more cost-effective and efficient. Kiosks and self-service registers have replaced airline employees and cashiers, computer programs have replaced tax advisors and human researchers by being able to search more quickly through endless amounts of data, and travel agencies are utilized less when so many online travel websites exist.

Hasn’t the Labor Market Overcome Technology Before?

Technological advances have been dealt with in the past. New jobs were created to combat the ones lost. On one hand, this technology boom should be no different. Taking for granted job creation that has for right now followed technology, might blind us to the loss of other jobs in other economic areas. The main issue some take with these advances is, although they appear cyclical, they are arriving much faster than any previous changes did. It is simply too fast. The rest of the economic sectors are unable to adapt as quickly as needed. And simply repeating the phrase that we will create jobs that we don’t even have a need for yet hardly clears the air.

In other words, computer technology is not creating jobs as fast as it is removing them from the sector. There is no doubt that productivity is steadily growing; but the creation of jobs has leveled out. Consider that the GDP in the United States is a third higher than two decades ago. How can so much growth not also produce a rise in job creation? Economic growth should cause a decline in unemployment. But this standard economic-ism may need to be altered with the inclusion of many machines producing output. After all, the definition of automation is less jobs with the same output.

Aren’t We Overreacting?

But the economy has already absorbed some technological advances without significant job loss. And today, people still have jobs, new skills have been learned, jobs have evolved, and some machines have been designed with controlsto help with more efficient output. Many argue that this current resettling of economic change is just that, a new machine and continuing human balance.

I am Going to Get Me a Robot

But robots are like super cheap now. Maybe not cheap. But, they certainly are an actually feasible option for many more businesses. If the automation can be implemented at much lower investment, the desire to implement becomes much stronger. The first impacted aspect of job creation (or job destruction) is wage. Almost twenty years ago, the insertion of automation in the factory cost twice what it costs today. In the fast food and lower-end retail industry, the rising minimum wage has encouraged several companies to seek out cashier-alternatives, to reduce overhead. Additionally, labor unions are likely to be impacted by automation. Wage costs go up, benefit demands rise, etc., companies decide to choose innovation over human labor.

Sorry, Some Jobs have already been on the Out

Machines love tasks that are repetitive. Or rather, many businesses love tasks that are repetitive, that a machine might be able to do at slightly less pay, and without a need for a vacay. The labor market relies on needs to be filled. Many believe that automation is coming, so we’ll just adjust. But it is human nature to need (or at least want) to know what adjustments to make. It is said that new and different jobs will be created to complement the various forms of automation. But like what? If society hopes to help balance out technology and jobs, the process must be a partnership.

And for right now, there are at least some jobs that need real people, going to real places, and interacting with other real people. Automation or not, adaptability and growth is key. But there is also no doubt that with some activities, machines can do it faster. The question remains, is that the real goal?

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.