The Job Automation Eliminated

March 30, 2017
Successfully addressing any problem is never simple—much less a problem as complex as the job shifts that have occurred due to automation. Digging deeper into this question reveals that what we at first see as a problem could be more of an opportunity.

A primary focus of the past election cycle and the current administration has been jobs. More specifically, there has been a great deal of talk about bringing jobs back that were offshored over the past decades. But speaking about boosting employment in this way does little to address the evolving needs of the market or help prepare people for the jobs that are available. As noted in a recent blog post, the number of open positions in U.S. manufacturing is currently the highest it’s been in 15 years due to a lack of skilled workers

The key drivers behind the changing job requirements that have led to the current chasm of unfilled manufacturing jobs in the U.S. are advancing technology, in general, and automation, in particular. This, of course, should be of no surprise to anyone these days, much less a reader of Automation World. Yet the calls to bring back the jobs of yesteryear persist as if the sheer force of will can undo the result of decades of technological advances and the impact they’ve had on the market.

Despite the concern over jobs “lost to automation,” Quartz recently reported that a Harvard economist, James Bessen, recently reviewed the 270 occupations listed in the 1950 U.S. census and discovered that only one had been eliminated by automation. Of course, many jobs have disappeared since 1950, such as boardinghouse keepers, due to lack of demand, and telegraph operators due to the obsolescence of the technology involved in the job. The job of elevator operator, however, is the only job, according to Bessen, to have been completely erased by automation.

Of course, it’s easy to cite a handful of upscale hotels and swanky office buildings around the world that still employ elevator operators, but that’s for effect and ambience, not out of need.

In its report based on Bessen’s findings, Quartz cited a recent McKinsey analysis which noted that, although many jobs have some aspect that can be automated, very few jobs can be “entirely eliminated” by automation. The elevator operator example serves as a good case in point for this argument considering that it is the only job to have completely disappeared due to automation over the past 67 years.

Bessen points out that the difference between a job being partially affected by automation and totally eliminated by automation is a critical distinction. “If a job is completely automated, then automation necessarily reduces employment. But if a job is only partially automated, employment might actually increase,” said Bessen in a column posted last fall. In the column he cited the impact of automation on cloth production in the 19th century. “During the 19th century, 98 percent of the labor required to weave a yard of cloth was automated, yet the number of weaving jobs actually increased. Automation drove the price of cloth down, increasing the highly elastic demand, resulting in net job growth despite the labor saving technology,” he wrote.

Considering such evidence, along with the amount of unfilled manufacturing jobs in the U.S., it’s time for politicians to stop advocating for the return of low-skilled manufacturing jobs that will never return in significant numbers. The focus today needs to be on stepping up education efforts to help prepare U.S. workers for the jobs that are already here and waiting for them.

A number of automation companies are already active on this front, as highlighted in my “Automation + Jobs: Not a Zero-Sum Equation” blog post, but more help is clearly needed. A critical first step clearly requires a shift in mindset toward promoting improved skills training in the U.S. An equally critical second step is recognizing that STEM-related technical skills are not the only skills that will be need in the fourth industrial revolution, which is now underway. According to a report by the World Economic Forum comparing the top 10 skills needed in 2015 compared to 2020—only complex problem solving skills remained in the top three. The ability the coordinate with others and manage people drop out of the number two and three spots in 2015 to be replaced by critical thinking and creativity in 2020.

As stated in the WEF report: “Creativity will become one of the top three skills workers will need. With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes. Robots may help us get to where we want to be faster, but they can’t be as creative as humans (yet). Change won’t wait for us: business leaders, educators and governments all need to be proactive in up-skilling and retraining people.”

With skills like creativity and critical thinking becoming more necessary to future business success, the up-skilling that WEF refers to will need to address both STEM-related training as well as some degree of classic liberal arts education.

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