As the automation of jobs increases, will the color of your collar matter?
photo: Sara Kelly – cc
There’s a word unspoken in the shadowy underbelly of derelict automotive plants. Children in some areas of Detroit are scolded for muttering it under their breath while unshaven back-alley drifters recoil in horror as joyriding delinquents yell it from their speeding Teslas. For many, “automation” is a word that represents both progress and potential economic decline as we come up with faster, cheaper, and more efficient ways to do less at the expense of human interaction.
Bear in mind this is nothing new. Automation in the workplace has been well underway since the Industrial Revolution. The big difference today is that while the cotton gin required less people to accomplish more, an Automatic Transaction Machine requires virtually no one outside of maintenance. There’s quite a bit less bodily dismemberment as well.
With an increasingly cost-effective alternative to manual labor, many in the blue-collar workforce peer uneasily at what’s on the horizon while Wall Street white-collars and Silicon Valley pixel-pushers mostly breathe easy at night. But are higher-end jobs really safe in a future of increasingly capable business analytic software and algorithms with input straight from the customer?
To a great extent they are, but a 2013 Oxford University study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne predicts that 47% of US jobs are under threat of being automated at some point in the near future – a fair amount of which are in the white-collar sector. Yes, labor-intensive repetitive jobs tend to have a far larger probability of getting the axe, but other jobs with a high probability of computerization include Real Estate Brokers, Tax Preparers, Claims Adjusters, and (quite tragically) Fashion Models.
photo: Phil Dokas – cc
One of the largest segments under threat of automation, according to the study, is the Transportation/Driver Industry. With Google planning to release their driverless cars to the public sometime between 2017 and 2020 (via Recode), it seems we’re well on our way to implementing what looks like a safer, cheaper, and more time-effective (cars don’t need to sleep) method of passenger travel. What this means for the budding ride-share industry will no doubt be seen shortly.
But which fields are immune to the automation of jobs? While it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty, it appears that jobs relying more on social interaction and organic thought will fare quite a bit better than the more repetitive occupations. Jobs in Social Working, Therapy, Teaching, and Fashion Design traditionally rely on face-to-face encounters with clients and will probably be around for a while (you won’t be shouting your marital problems at your iPhone to Siri any time soon).
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With the implementation of cheaper, manless modes of production falling into place, it would seem logical that wide-scale unemployment and severe economic collapse are just around the corner. There’s just one problem – it should have happened by now.
It bears repeating that automation isn’t some new phenomenon that’s caught us unaware. Even with the establishment of highly autonomous businesses like Amazon, Turbotax, and Travelocity in place, unemployment in the US is currently the lowest it’s been in seven years (US Department of Labor, 2015).
Confused yet? Let’s break it down.
There are a few competing theories as to why we aren’t in a bigger predicament than we are. One maintains that the automation of jobs simply allows the would-be displaced worker (with a bit of training) to do the work of five workers. Instead of being outright replaced, a worker’s productivity simply increases exponentially – they now utilize machinery and software to complete their task in a fraction of the time. On top of that, it argues that the growth of automation spurs a growth in new job markets like automation software development, robotics, and robot maintenance. Though there are jobs in the US growing redundant via automation, it looks like we’re doing a damn good job at adapting.
Despite our apparent resilience, I still can’t help but linger on what a future of automation means for myself (as I’m sure you have). Our company’s network has over 1500 repair technicians – our lovable iTechs – and I can’t help but think about them as well. I think about the way their business models work, I read customer reviews thanking them by name, and I realize it’s human interaction that’s going to count for a lot in the future.
I understand it won’t be feasible for every occupation, but If we can figure out how to move the way we operate business towards higher degrees of personal connection, we just might retain something that can never be replaced by a machine.