Exploring the mirage that automation increases unemployment

Continued criticism masks the reality that thousands of manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to a lack of people and skills.

By Jim Montague

I recently heard it repeated in several print and video formats that "automation is putting people out of work." I've seen this opinion tossed out a few times over the years, but this latest batch of a half dozen examples cropped up in just the past few weeks. I'd like to assume it's just part of the baloney wave floating in since the U.S. election, but even some respectable outlets were condemning automation with pretty much zero documentation to back up their assertions.

As a co-producer of non-fiction, my primary advice to readers is: always take everything you read with a big grain of salt and skepticism, assume there's probably more to any story, and remember that any report that seems nonsensical probably is. In short, just try get some independent confirmation about any important situation before you settle on a final opinion or decision. This procedure will likely be more useful than ever in the next few years.

Read the report: What Manufacturers Really Think of the IIoT

Why is this? Because easy answers and prejudice are so attractive. They don't require any uncomfortable thinking. They go down so easy, just like the endlessly looping clichés and storylines on most sports or entertainment "news" shows. Simply swallow and go back to sleep. You probably won't even feel it when your health insurance, 401(k), Medicare and Social Security disappears—if they haven't already.      

For the same reasons, it's tempting to slam automation. Most importantly, this half-baked belief carries some logic with it, which adds a little credibility to firm up the illusion, until actual context arrives to blow it away. Automation, typically depicted by robots in automobile plants, does replace some of the manual tasks that people used to do.

All that remains is a choice: stick with nostalgic illusion and cruel, soon-to-be-broken promises that a golden past can return, or learn what we really need to survive in the future and jump in.

However, these are just the latest in a long parade of labor-saving technologies that have come down the pike since forever. Software, computers and the Internet replaced calculators and adding machines. Screens replaced print, moveable type, monks/scribes and cave paintings. Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are displacing texting, email and snail mail, which displaced "go and tell them yourself." Cars replaced horses and "walking there yourself." In the process industries, software and the Internet are replacing DCSs and PLCs, which displaced replays, pneumatics and manual controls. I'm sure everyone remembers the buggy whip example. 

I'm betting that all these innovations through history were accompanied by critics and naysayers, who first said they wouldn't work, and then bellyached that "they took our jobs." This view typically ignores all the new jobs that new industries create because no one wants to wake up, turn off autopilot and learn new skills for new settings. Heck, I don't even like putting the credit card chip in instead of swiping.

The reality is that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs in all forms of automation and control in the process and discrete industries they serve have gone begging and unfilled for years because companies can't find the skilled employees to do them. Many are willing to train good candidates for free or close to it in in-house programs or in partnerships with local community colleges. Granted, some firms use claimed worker scarcity to sit on cash and not invest, but many more companies genuinely need people. My cover article, "Spring Chickens," Sept. '14, p. 34 detailed many of these efforts.   

All that's missing is a little get up and go. And that's the real problem, and the reason for the disconnect between the mirage that automation increases unemployment and the truth that automation creates jobs that require learning new skills. Of course, education and change always come with some difficulty and lean times, which eventually give way to increased prosperity. All that remains is a choice: stick with nostalgic illusion and cruel, soon-to-be-broken promises that a golden past can return, or learn what we really need to survive in the future and jump in. 

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  • Excellent commentary. This is one of the best summaries of the reality versus the flawed perception of automation's effects I have read. People want the good old days, but they have forgotten the pain, drudgery, and difficulty of those days. Life may have been simpler, but they were harder. If the low skilled, low wage jobs are brought back, who will fill them? Draftsmen used to hand draw the drawings and each copy was redrawn by hand. Operators had to go to the field to open or close a valve manually, regardless of weather or distance. Machinists had to hand cut and file all of the parts. Retail clerks had to hand add all of the items in a purchase on a paper list. Engineers had to hand calculate all of the data for a bridge or building and those calculations had to be hand checked by other engineers. Way back, specialized carpenters made the wheels for our vehicles and our storage vessels. Blacksmithing and farriers were high demand jobs for everyday existence and those jobs are really hard work. Technology and automation are time saving and probably life saving improvements. Most jobs require computer skills now instead of the manual dexterity, strength, and craftsman skills learned through years of apprenticeships. The current jobs most people want require thinking, discipline, dedication, and team work. These same qualities have always made people successful. Automation is just a tool to make the jobs easier to perform well. And robots will require robot engineers, technicians, and mechanics ... with good skills.

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  • With the highest respect and not to be contradictory, let me share that in today’s world that what is desirable is confused with what is real, Mr. Montague, this essay sounds feasible, certainly desirable, but also probably wishful-thinking. Please present more supporting facts that can be corroborated. Companies do automation either to achieve results that direct manpower cannot, or to save in manpower costs. You would make your argument if you can illustrate that as productivity increases, and demand for products increase at such a higher rate than in net more manpower is required. In addition is the issue of economics treating labor as a cost to be reduced, while that labor is the essence of the national fabric whose lives we are trying to improve. In my mind, we need a new motivation and drive in business. Let me hypothesize that if labor were paid sufficiently, they would get the education that is necessary. Also, if paid sufficiently, they would be picking up strawberries in the field. And people would be able to pay more because they make more. And business would be making more money if the playing field is even across the nation.

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  • Yes, please add another layer of baloney to the discussion. You sound like a modern day calvanist as you blame victims for the lack of corporate social responsibility. Visit any local store and it will be difficult to find products made in the United States. It does not take much imagination to understand that the people that used to make those products in the United States no longer have jobs that will support a family. Most of those jobs did not require "skills" and when the corporations left the United States, the corporations did not offer to retrain those workers with the skills that are necessary to work in the controls industry or any other industry. In addition, the lost jobs are spread out across the country and would require a mass relocation to wherever you say these jobs are. Nobody is offering to pay for relocation either. And these changes to industry are happening much faster than in the past. http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21700758-will-smarter-machines-cause-mass-unemployment-automation-and-anxiety The jobs situation is not as simple as you suggest. Since corporations are not willing, the government will have to step in and provide retraining and relocation.

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