The debate over the advantages and disadvantages of automation goes back to the 1960’s, when our understanding of the true implications was nascent. The technological revolution really had just begun. Our arguments were simple: “it will make our company more productive” and, alternatively, “it will replace workers.” It’s difficult to say which position was right. Maybe that is why it was so difficult to gain consensus at that time.
In an article in Bloomberg Business News (2/19/19, pp. 28-29), this topic is addressed, and demonstrates just how complex this issue still is for us. It advances the argument that technology hasn’t really improved productivity as much as we thought. Labor Productivity, for example, after many ups and downs, is at the same relative rate of growth in 2017 as it was in 1988 (near “0”).
What explains this surprising history?
It turns out that “digitizing” (can we use “automating?” It just feels better.) results in job creation, not job loss. The article points out that automation is expensive. Fundamentally, the reason why is because of the cost of procuring the hardware and software required to accomplish the objective. But with it also comes the need to train current personnel, and to acquire new personnel who possess the needed technological knowledge for the future.
A Hospital Industry Example
A good example of this in a work environment we can all understand is the Hospital Industry. When the primary computing system is replaced throughout a hospital, trainers and consultants descend upon the hospital to orient hospital workers at many levels to the new system’s operation. After they leave, internal trainers are assigned to train peers and doctors in the new system. The trainers may also be responsible for solving problems that arise. But when this activity abates, new hires are sought who possess knowledge of the new computer system. This can inflate the price of acquiring them.
But it doesn’t end there. Later, the new “advanced monitors” arrive, and of course they are more technologically complex. More training, more time, and less productivity. And, it would be great to find new RN’s and other workers who know how to operate the monitors. More time, more money, and lower productivity, at least for awhile.
An I.T. Profession Example
In the 1960’s no one envisioned the need to stock up on IT systems administrators for the advanced technologies, and to secure all computer systems from external threats in some distant galaxy known as “cyberspace.” The result? Even more hiring of labor with IT job titles that were just “pixie dust” in the minds of a few futurists a half a century ago. The futurists maintained that technology would produce only one result in the future that they envisioned: more productivity. Apparently, this wasn’t such a certain outcome.
The Future Threat
And now that we have built sophisticated technological IT systems, we face a new risk: external threats to our electrical power grid that keeps these systems running. We would be wise to create the new technologies that will protect the grid from a disaster that will render our achievements useless. This is a critical goal for the U.S.
After we accomplish this, because we certainly can, there is only one thing left to do.
Let’s start hiring!