Saturday, November 05, 2011

Technology and Jobs

I caught an interesting story on NPR yesterday while I was driving in to work.  The topic was about the intersection between machines and human beings in terms of technological advancement and its impact upon the job market.
For a long time we've known that certain machines have been competing with human workers for jobs.  Typically, I think most people envision this in terms of factory automation, companies using robots or similar devices to help fasten bolts, weld components, or perform other relatively uncomplicated tasks on assembly lines (personally, when I've thought of technology stealing jobs, I've usually conjured up images of big robotic arms busily attaching parts to one another in car factories).
This NPR story talked about a conference held by economists and technologists at Harvard and M.I.T. recently called Race Against the Machine.  One thing that I found interesting about the story (and apparently, by extension, about the conference) was that part of the discussion dealt not simply with the fact that machines are still taking over human jobs, but that machines have begun to take over more and more jobs that require a higher skill set-  jobs that had traditionally been reserved for the middle class.
When automation first began to take over some human jobs it seemed like it was mostly taking over jobs that were monotonous, often involving physical exertion, and which were sometimes danger.  Robots were replacing human workers on the factory floor, and many blue collar jobs fell victim to machines.
With the advent of increasingly sophisticated computer programming, however, the new technological threat to human employment seems to come more from areas such as data compilation and/or straightforward application of logic- and many of these jobs tend to be white collar.
Bank tellers, actuaries, accountants, ticket agents, and even lawyers (especially those previously engaged in document review and other high volume tasks) are being replaced in droves by computers as one employee with a decent machine and the right software achieves results that once required dozens of people.  (the NPR story says that for attorneys engaged in document review, it now may sometimes be possible for one attorney to complete the work that formerly would have required 500 attorneys)
recent article by Rana Foroohar in Time Magazine about the decline of upward mobility in the United States similarly pointed to technology as a thief of middle class jobs.  It's not that computers and robots steal all jobs, Foroohar pointed out.  Sales clerks, janitors, and maintenance people are needed on one end of the spectrum in order to perform relatively low skill level jobs in order to maintain the machines and put a human face on certain tasks, and on the other end of the spectrum, higher level, strategic decision makers and executives have been relatively unscathed by increased implementation of technology.  The middle class, however, has been squeezed pretty hard by the use of machines and robots in many cases.  In an economy where American workers are already struggling to compete with outsourcing and cheap foreign labor, job losses due to technological utilization can feel that much more devastating.

I'm not exactly sure where the solution lies.  That same Foroohar article from Time pointed out that some of the European nations which seem to be faring pretty well during the global economic downturn are nations who have placed significant emphasis upon higher education in order to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technological innovation and development.  With an investment in education (especially math, computer science, engineering, chemistry, and other sciences), some of the European nations have managed to avoid both the outsourcing of jobs (it's much more difficult to outsource jobs that are on the cutting edge of technological development) and job loss due to technology (if the jobs are things that are right ion the cutting edge of what's being developed, machines won't have been developed yet that can replace them).  Essentially, if you can maintain a workforce that remains on the forefront of development and innovation, then those workers will consistently remain in demand for businesses that are creating new technologies.
And that's where we want to be.  We want our citizens to be building new machines.  Technology can and does create jobs, but your workers have to be at a skill level that allows them to help develop processes, components, etc. for these new machines.  The theory is that if your population can stay one step ahead of the curve, then the advances in technology can drive your economy as you work to build new and better machines instead of primarily taking away jobs and leaving people unemployed.
So that's the good news.  People are holding up investment in and emphasis upon education as a potential solution to this whole jobs/technology dilemma.
Buut... I'm not entirely sold on this line of reasoning.  To me, it still feels like we're just not going to need as many innovators, designers, strategists, etc. (no matter how well educated they are) to compensate for the relatively vast number of people who are losing jobs to computers and machines.  Annnnd (and I'm not sure how to put this delicately enough) there may be issues with trying to fix an employment gap by simply stating that we'll educate our way out of it.  Science, math, computer science, engineering, etc. are some pretty difficult disciplines to master, and can we really count on the fact that we can simply school the middle section of our workforce into being highly skilled in some extremely difficult subject areas?  We might be able to pull this off, but we're not going to pull it off by simply emphasizing different things in college.  Our students have to be better prepared in the first place to study more difficult topics when they get to college.  For such a plan to work, we need to educate our system from the elementary education level on up so that we can compete with countries who have long had wealthier, more homogenous populations and a stronger cultural emphasis on education.

I don't like to write a post that  worries about something without sounding hopeful about some kind of viable solution, but the whole middle class American jobs topic is tough.  Greater education is certainly a big part of the solution, but if we're going to rely on education to keep us ahead of the curve, then we need to get really serious about educating our students in a manner that makes them significantly more competitive on an international scale, and we need to be willing to make the financial investments and sacrifices that are necessary to reform our schools in a meaningful way.  Most of all, maybe, we need to really work at changing the way that Americans, in general, look at education.  We can't keep just looking at schools as baby sitters and free day care, and we need to have high expectations for our teachers and administrators while simultaneously giving them all of the support that they need to improve the learning process.
Nothing new in my pitch for an emphasis on education, I guess, except maybe to say that it might be the only thing that can save a lot of jobs from skilled foreign workers and machines.  I really think we need nothing short of a cultural shift in terms of our approach to education if American is going to remain one of the most dominant economies in the world.  In order to protect the economic standing of the American middle class I think we need PR campaigns and a renewed social awareness about the importance of education that's every bit as strong or stronger than the push for environmentalism and green energy has been in recent years.

I guess that's it.  Support your schools.  Support your teachers.  Don't be afraid to expect more out of the education system, and make sure kids understand why education's important for their own futures and the future of their whole community.

I'm done.  I'm done.
Stay ahead of the robots.



J.S. said...

My Dad couldn't get this comment to post, so I'm posting it for him. Dad's first comment as a retiree!!

Here goes:

Since I graduated and went to work at Martin Marietta the advances in technology in the shop and in the office have been amazing - and have had a devastating effect on employment. In that forty year period the technology improvements in manufacturing have increased the output of each shop employee many times over. Similarly, the advent of and improvements in computers in the office (and on the road) has increased the productivity of office workers many fold. When I went to work at Ford we had 28 accounting people in the Rawsonville plant. I have absolutely no doubt that today we could support that plant with 4-5 accounting people, at most. Both the manufacturing jobs and the accounting jobs were clearly in the middle class category - and they have all disappeared. In addition, we have outsourced, or shifted, manufacturing and lower level engineering to what are called "low cost countries". Again, negatively impacting the middle class. As you know, I am not speaking from a theoretical background - I have actively participated in every bit of this.

As "productivity" impoves, profits improve. As profits improve, management is rewarded with increasing pay, bonuses and equity. To your point, a lot of this is simply due to improving technology and management's obligation to invest in that technology to remain competitive and protect, if not improve, profits. Middle class jobs go away - and management compensation goes up. Sound familiar?


J.S. said...

I know. Part of what's disturbing is the fact that increased efficiency and productivity can mean a reduction in the number of decent jobs out there. I'm not saying anyone's necessarily to blame (I'm not going to advocate the idea that we put people back into positions that machines can efficiently handle), but it does seem painful that these jobs are going away. It's a natural characteristic of capitalism that efficiency is rewarded, but right now efficiency might be sort of driving the American middle class right out of existence while the people in the upper echelons make more and more amounts of money for implementing systems that use machines and foreign labor. The whole process feels like it's reshaping our society in a way that's polarizing the wealth more than ever. Fewer and fewer people are reaping the rewards of successful business in our country, and even though corporate profits remain fairly healthy, the middle class continues to stagnate. In the end, I think our lack of middle class consumers will probably hurt the overall economy (meaning even the rich), but it might take a while we feel the real effecs of losing the American middle class consumer/worker engine.

poetrymatters said...

What went wrong with America ? - Big Idea - 8-September-2011 -
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman introduces his new book . It's an insightful account of a United States in slow decline and a discussion about what is wrong, why things have gone wrong and what Americans can and must do to make them right. In this broad ranging talk he looks at some of the...

J.S. said...

Interesting... We're definitely facing some challenges. We've fought our way through them before (the Great Depression being the easiest example). Part of what's unusual, for a historical perspective, about our current situation is the fact that the rest of the world is starting to advance so quickly in relation to the U.S. in economic terms (maybe note Europe, but China, India, etc. are definitely on the rise).
Anyway, thanks for the comment!