robots just might take your job. and keep it.

Being replaced by machines at work is no longer a utopian prediction. It's a grim reality for which our leaders haven't even tried to prepare.

automation

In today’s economy, everybody is worried about jobs and rightfully so. Some experts are even forecasting that we can forget about a full recovery in the job market until 2017, and the big fear for many is that their skills will no longer be needed because some jobs are going away forever. Unfortunately, for many workers, that does seem to be true thanks to the new ways so much business is being done. This is why in this election China, and its image of a global outsourcing hub which creates millions of new jobs at the expense of others, is the boogieman so often cited by politicians when it comes to addressing soaring unemployment. But there’s one more reason why millions of jobs are being eliminated altogether, a reason that doesn’t get much attention or airtime, and a reason much more difficult to sum up in a catchy slogan for an attack ad, or to fight. Robots.

As reported by a piece in Good Magazine, more and more manufacturing jobs are being automated because unlike humans, robots don’t need breaks, they don’t require benefits, they don’t negotiate wages, and if they’re not doing the work they’re supposed to do, you can fix them or just send them back and buy new ones. On top of that, they make far fewer mistakes than fallible and fatigued humans. They don’t necessarily cost that much less than humans since prices for heavy duty industrial machinery easily run into the millions of dollars, and they’re not perfect, requiring a human to inspect their work and adjust their aim and actions accordingly. But in the long run, it’s easier to employ a small staff of engineers to supervise the machinery than pay benefits to a few hundred blue collar workers whose wages are often negotiated by unions, and the legacy costs are much less. And it’s not only the manufacturing workers who should be concerned. Although while collar jobs are still safer than blue collar ones, automation and outsourcing will also take its toll there.

Paperwork is increasingly being handled by software or outsourced to cut costs, and with every recession, the management tries to push the limits of both to see how much work can be done without having to start hiring. This is why it takes a while for many jobs to come back after a recession. It’s not that the companies are timid about the economic landscape after a recession is over and just need another tax incentive or a bonus to hire new employees, as so many politicians and supply-siders often repeat whenever the question of how they’re planning to create new jobs is voiced at a town hall meeting. Companies aren’t hiring because they just don’t have to hire a lot of people and the tax credit or cash incentive put up against an average worker’s salary with benefits are just too small to hire some extra people and explore new opportunities. Again, keep in mind that there will always be jobs that can’t, and shouldn’t, be outsourced for strategic or legal reasons, and there will always be a need to check that the software did what it was actually supposed to do. But the double punch of outsourcing and automation is going to cut down on a lot of clerical and administrative jobs.

So, you may wonder, who’s safe in the future other than the IT people who’ll have to build, maintain and fix all the robots and software packages in question? We can say that human subject matter experts will always be needed to teach and supervise the machinery, though there will be fewer of them than many companies have today. Managers will be needed to coordinate work and come up with new ideas and products. And yes, we’ll still need skilled trades-people who can do things most machines won’t be able to do safely or effectively for decades to come. When it comes to outsourcing, the picture is rather murky. Outsourcing as we know it is an example of globalization which supporters say adds $1 trillion to the American GDP every year, most of that in the form of cheaper goods being sold to more people. But the globalization currently being practiced is often very one-sided. American and European multi-nationals send work overseas, but Americans and Europeans will have a very hard time trying to find a job in hot global markets as foreigners. And the very countries which benefit most from outsourcing tend to be some of the more protectionist states as well.

In other words, we’re sending money and jobs to nations while expecting them to create new opportunities for us, building a loop of globalization benefiting everyone involved. But what really happens is that these nations take the jobs, ship back the required product, then shut out foreign companies trying to get what their leaders see as too big of a slice of the economy. And while we talk about the need for free trade and how protectionist measures would take a toll on our economies (and they certainly would), the world’s outsourcing hubs nod in agreement as they write laws forbidding foreign companies to accumulate more than a certain stake in their homegrown corporations, and write immigration laws that keep foreign citizens from coming over and trying to get jobs in high demand. And that’s a problem requiring a lot of diplomatic work to resolve…

# tech // economy / globalization / jobs / robots


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