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Automation is the Real Story

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

Written by: Larry Goodfellow

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From Top of the Line to Junk

I had a relaxing holiday, and this past week set out on a mission to minimize the amount of possessions that I have in my house. I was spurred on by the documentary, “The Minimalists.” Doing this is hard, mainly because you have memories attached to possessions that you don’t use, and it’s those memories that make it hard to throw away. As I began to go through closets and cupboards, I began sorting into garbage, donations, and possessions that I wanted to keep. What became shocking to me, was that the majority of stuff I had begun placing in the donations pile was valuable ten years ago, but now with the rise of technology it pretty much needed to go into the garbage. I found a video camera that was 3 mega pixels, then there were the piles of music CD’s, and piles of DVD’s. Then there were all of the owner manuals for the dishwasher, washing machine, and drier and every other electrical product I own which my son told me could be thrown out because they were all online.

This led me to ponder on the fact that with the rise of technology, industries and jobs have been created, but they also have been done away with. I thought about all of the movie rental stores that have been shut down, all of the printing warehouses that are no longer necessary, as well as the pulp and paper mills that have downsized or closed. While thinking upon all of this I came across this article in the New York Times entitled “The Long-Term Jobs Killer is not China. It’s Automation” written by Claire Cain Miller. What was interesting was the fact that Trump campaigned on bringing jobs back from China and India, and many voted for him based on this promise, when the real truth is that the majority of the jobs that have disappeared have been due to automation.

Machines Learning how to Work

The article by Miller begins with Sherry Johnson, 56, who worked at a local newspaper in Georgia. She was responsible for feeding the printer and helped with layout. Slowly the machines were able to do her job, and she was left unemployed. She tried taking a computer class but felt unable to compete with those in their 20’s and 30’s because they grew up with technology whereas she didn’t.

Part of Donald Trump’s campaign was based on the promise that he would start bringing jobs back to the U.S. that had been outsourced to places like China. Miller writes that economists are saying that the real threat is automation. The article quotes an economics professor, Lawrence Katz at Harvard who has stated, “Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important — it’s not even close.” This uncertainty is easier to blame on an outside villain like China than it is to discuss frankly.

The reason why this subject wasn’t broached much during the campaign is because it is new and we don’t know how this will play out exactly, simply because we have never been down this road before. Technology just keeps marching on, and regardless of the casualties like manufacturing plants closing, and people losing their jobs it will just keep going. But will we all be replaced by machines and left unemployed? These are the sort of questions that many people don’t want to even consider. This is not to say that it is all doom and gloom. While new technology does away with certain jobs it also creates new ones.

Industries that have been hardest hit include the steel industry which has lost 75% of its workers from 1962-2005 which has been 400,000 people. Miller writes how this has not been due to a decrease in steel needs, but due to a new technology called the MINIMILL. Another study found that only 13 percent of manufacturing jobs were lost due to outsourcing, while the rest was due in part to automation. Like any changing landscape, understanding the trends and changes allows you to prepare for the future, this is why our online community software is so impactful for companies.

Closing Manufacturing Plants

The New York Times article showed a closed down manufacturing plant in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, which went from blue to red during the election. Donald Trump rallied hard in this county saying that he would be going after trade and offshoring. Many individuals in these areas still believe that they have lost their job to another worker in another country, but in reality they have lost their job to a machine and a new technology. This would have been much harder to campaign against. This begs the question whether in future elections, there will be campaigning against technology and innovation?

While the majority of jobs being replaced by automation tend to be in the manufacturing sectors, they have begun to extend beyond to affect white-collar jobs as well.  Miller writes, “The changes are not just affecting manual labor: Computers are rapidly learning to do some white-collar and service-sector work, too. Existing technology could automate 45 percent of activities people are paid to do, according to a July report by McKinsey.”

Labor economists have been trying to reduce the blow by saying that there are ways to ease the transition for workers. Ways to ease automation include providing retraining programs for workers, higher minimum wage, and more education. The jobs least likely to be affected are creative jobs, management of people, care-giving and other jobs that require human interaction such as customer service.

Technology Affects Us All

The reality is that every individual has and will continue to be affected by technology, both good and bad. The best way to handle change is to understand the facts. If the general population of those hit hardest by automation understood that their jobs were lost to automation and not another country, there would have been more pressure to create programs to help with retraining, and to be able to get the resources needed to create more jobs, and maintain job security in those communities. We believe the best way to deal with change is to know as much information as possible so that you can make the right decisions, especially when it comes to your business.

If you would like to find out more about how online research communities can do that please contact us.

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