Tech, The World, Now + Beyond

Is automation really killing jobs? The answer is more complicated than a yes or no

The conversation about automation and jobs should be about whose jobs are being lost and the classism involved in giving their job to a machine.

During the campaign, Trump promised to bring back jobs. In January, after his inauguration, President Trump promised to create 25 million jobs. No previous President has made such an ambitious promise. Analysis of the voting results indicates that job creation is a large part of why Trump won the election. People overlooked his glaring problems because they truly believed he’d create jobs.

As soon as candidate Trump started bring up job creation, especially in the manufacturing industry, people began to talk about the impact of automation on jobs, especially manufacturing jobs. The debate as to whether automation would create a net job loss took center stage.

A consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, did a study on automating jobs that found that up to half of the tasks performed by a human at their job could be automated in some way. When you first see that number it sounds like a lot of jobs will be lost to automation, but to get the real story you have to dig a little deeper.

Some economists argue that automation will actually help create jobs. Introduction of automation can create jobs that didn’t exist before. In many manufacturing jobs, humans are needed to manage the automated technology. The job of creating the item has been eliminated, but the job of managing the machine has been created. Proponents of automation say this nets out. Looking at the big picture, jobs created by automation and jobs lost by automation, it can look like we’re breaking even with automation. Overall, we’re not losing jobs, we’re just shifting jobs.

Economists also argue that the introduction of automation can create jobs by cutting costs for the businesses, enabling them to hire more people. For example, when banks introduced ATM’s to handle simple cash withdrawals and deposits, the logical result would have been that there would be less bank tellers because ATM’s did part of the work of bank tellers. However, since the introduction of ATM’s the number of bank tellers has actually increased. The need for bank tellers at each branch decreased, which lowered the cost of opening a branch. This, in turn, meant than banks could open more locations, which meant they needed more bank tellers. So, ATM’s actually created jobs.

On the other hand, it’s clear that automation is causing some people to lose their jobs. When your job is to assemble an item by hand and your company buys a machine to assemble that item, you won’t have a job anymore. This is happening to a lot of people, all across the country. The majority of people losing their jobs to automation are unskilled, low paid workers. Many of them do not have college degrees and they usually can’t afford to pursue one.

When their job is eliminated by a machine, they usually do not even qualify for the job that was created to manage the machine that took their job. They can’t just get a job that requires a degree or specific skills. They cannot pursue training to get a new job that requires specific skills because they cannot afford training.

So, the real conversation about how automation impacts jobs shouldn’t be about whether there is net job loss or job creation. It should be about whose jobs are being lost and the classism involved in giving their job to a machine. On a whole, automation may create jobs, but automation creates highly skilled jobs, while it eliminates unskilled labor. Automation is giving jobs to people who could already get jobs, while taking jobs away from people who can’t get new jobs.

Saying we’re shifting jobs, not losing jobs ignores the fact that many people cannot shift. In a country where the divide between the rich and the poor is already astronomical, ignoring the impact automation has on the poor by insisting that automation creates jobs on a whole, is at best naive and at worst willfully dismissive.

If we want to responsibly invest in automation and create jobs for everyone, not just skilled workers, we need to commit to job training programs as well as job creation programs. Unskilled workers who are losing their jobs to need to be offered training that will help them acquire the necessary skills to obtain a new job, and this training needs to be free or affordable. It should be included as a benefit of unemployment. Individual companies should provide their unskilled employees with training to manage the machines that are replacing them instead of hiring skilled technicians.

There is a way to move forward with automation in a responsible and non-classist way, but none of the policies proposed by the current administration are doing so. Trump wants to create jobs, but he doesn’t care who he creates them for, which is unfortunate for all the poor, unskilled laborers who voted for him.