Pages Navigation Menu

For today's engineer

Jobs and Automation

Jobs and Automation

Automation has clear advantages:

  • Actions can be taken by machines faster and more accurately by human beings.
  • Human workers are shielded from harsh working environments, toxic materials, and physically demanding tasks.
  • Automated work is often more cost-effective than hiring multiple human workers, with their added costs and working conditions demands.

Sounds a lot like machines are better than people, doesn’t it?

For many workers, that underlying idea suggests that robot uprising they’ve seen in the movies, or at least the end of work as they know it.

And it’s true that many industries from the past have been essentially destroyed by automation. Hand needleworkers, for example, have few job opportunities today– which was just what the Luddites feared when they saw those automated knitting machines and weaving machines. They were right.

Ditto for chauffeurs. Sawyers, spinners, domestic servants who have been replaced by automatic coffee makers and vacuums, plenty of agricultural workers, and lamplighters — those jobs are gone. But that may not be a problem.

Are you really nostalgic for the good old days when whole families could earn their livings in sweat shops or tenements at three cents per shirt? Would you like your kid to be able to grow up and be a lamplighter?

Generally speaking, jobs that can be done by machines aren’t the best jobs for people. Automation takes jobs that are repetitive, dangerous, poorly paid, and not particularly creative.

As jobs for spinners and sawyers have become extinct, hundreds of new jobs have been created by the same technologies that made those old jobs obsolete. There are currently 800 different categories of jobs in the U.S., with hundreds of different specific occupations in each. That’s faor more different job opportunities than people had a century ago.

The problem of workers losing jobs to automation is not a problem at all when you take a large view. Some of the current jobs that are most likely to disappear in the next couple of decades include those of fast food workers, longshoremen, elder care workers, financial advisors, models, and bartenders. Will humanity suffer over the loss of those jobs?

Probably not. But the individuals who currently hold those jobs will. A barista with a B.A. in History will not be able to step right into an exciting job in robotics, and an elder care worker can’t become a systems analyst over the weekend. For some decades, the United States has seen a drop in jobs that require less education, less math and language skill, and less tech savvy. We can make this sound good by pointing out that this is an increase in higher-paying jobs, but that’s no comfort for people with less education, less math and language skill, and less technical ability.

For the readers of this article, the best approach is probably to make the effort to stay current, and to help those of your workers who are likely to lose their jobs to do so, too. Skilled handweavers could have become skilled jacquard loom operators… and some did. Progress can’t be halted, so it makes most sense to be proactive about the career changes ahead.