“As technology drives people out of the middle class, economists say, it’s pushing them in one of two directions. Those with the right skills or education graduate into a new technological elite. Everyone else falls into the ranks of the ‘precariat’ – the precariously employed, a workforce in low-wage jobs with few benefits or protections, where roles change frequently as technology transforms the nature of work.”
So wrote tech journalist Christopher Mimms in the February 9th edition of The Wall Street Journal (“Where Robots Will Soon Rule”) sounding the alarm for the looming future of automation, artificial intelligence and the rise of the robots.
We’ve made our living around here for thirty years extolling the benefits of business technology and automation as we worked to make hundreds of our customers’ employees’ jobs easier, less mundane and repetitive, more intellectually stimulating and more beneficial to the companies they serve, and the families they in turn can feed. You know: work smarter, not harder.
But it feels as though we are approaching a major inflection point, one written up with increasing frequency in the press. That point is where jobs either go up – way up – in terms of stimulation and technical sophistication, or they get lost entirely in the coming wave of robots and advanced automation.
Mimms in his article was speaking of a visit he’d made to Lakeland, Florida, home to 600,000 people and some of the largest and most technologically sophisticated warehouse centers in the country. In one cited example, a liquor distributor ships as many as 90,000 cases a day in a 1.3 million square foot facility utilizing 368 workers (and about as many more drivers). All the heavy lifting of one-ton pallets is left to machines in its 5-story shelving systems.
Lakeland has been judged as the third most “disruptable” city (by automation) in the country. (Nearby Toledo, Ohio is number one, by the way.) Sophisticated new warehouses at major crossroads that serve as beacons of technological triumph are quickly chipping away at the low hanging fruit of low-skills employment. It’s clearer than ever perhaps in history that we must either up our skills or be left behind.
Some good news however lies in the details. The nature of jobs is changing. If you’re a body working in a warehouse to stack cases rather than engaging your brain and your heart, you’ll be cycled through, as one operations VP pointed out to Mimms. But the good news is that with new automation, workers use their brains more managing the flow of goods and adapting to consumer demand changes, which has led to lower turnover.
Low-skilled workers are still required, as demonstrated for example at the final pick stations where units are moved from bins to shipping containers, aided by machines. It means though that the one thing standing between them and unemployment is their manual dexterity, and not their minds.
So far, the overall evidence shows that automation does not reduce the total number of jobs, per se. In fact, countries that automate the fastest, Mimms notes, appear to grow their economies the fastest. But he also cautions, “that’s hardly consolation to people who face automation-related layoffs.” According to ManpowerGroup, “what we’re seeing is a net increase in demand for jobs [due to automation] but a lot of churn.”
Those at the low-wage end of jobs must retrain for other jobs or switch to other easily learned roles. So far, those jobs remain intact. Meanwhile, older workers who lose jobs due to the rapid pace of change in technology are forced to “upskill” to get into more sophisticated roles if they don’t want to be left off the job rolls.
One last, perhaps fortunate, point to bear in mind as machines replace workers is the consolation that some jobs for the foreseeable distant future are going to require training in areas like nursing and home health care, and thus won’t be replaced any time soon. Others like driving for Uber and house care require little further training, but still appear safe – at least for now.
The question for the “precariat” is whether those are the sorts of jobs and wages they can be happy with.