Dire or Rosy? Dueling Views on Automation's Impact on Employment

Some say it will take away jobs; others say it will create them

By Dinah Brin May 30, 2017
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​As industries rush toward more automation, questions abound about the effects on workers and the world of work. Whether the outlook is sunny or dismal depends on the forecaster.

Some from the technology sector paint a bright picture of artificial intelligence (AI) and its effects on the workforce, while others warn that society needs to prepare for large-scale displacement.

Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie recently predicted that AI will create new industries and jobs by freeing people from tasks better handled by technology, allowing them to do the creative work for which humans are uniquely qualified.

Levie, whose company offers cloud-based storage and sharing services, suggested in a CNBC interview that people are being shortsighted in focusing on the industries and occupations that AI may displace rather than on the new human work that may emerge from such technology.

Automation Equals Profitability

"We fall on the side that we believe automation creates and saves jobs," said Bob Doyle, communications director for the Association for Advancing Automation. Jobs disappear when companies lose the ability to keep up, while robots and automation help companies compete in the global marketplace, he said.

Automation helps companies become more profitable and innovative, allowing them to enter new markets and hire more people, usually into better positions, Doyle told SHRM Online. "Jobs have been transforming since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution," he said.

From 2010 to 2016, U.S. customers received 136,748 robot shipments, "the most in any seven-year period in the U.S. robotics industry," the association noted in an April white paper, Work in the Automation Age: Sustainable Careers Today and Into the Future.  "In that same time period, manufacturing employment increased by 894,000 and the U.S. unemployment rate decreased from 9.8 percent in 2010 to 4.7 percent in 2016," the paper said.

 

'The notion that robots are taking all the jobs, at least when we look at the math, it just doesn't add up.'

 

Amazon had more than 45,000 employees when it introduced robots into its workflow in 2014, and since then employment has roughly doubled—even as the giant online retailer added more robots, the automation association said. And General Motors expanded U.S. employment to 105,000 in 2016 from 80,000 in 2012, as it added approximately 10,000 robots in its production processes, the organization said.

"We see similar results from multinational companies with thousands of employees to small manufacturing companies," the white paper stated.

"The notion that robots are taking all the jobs, at least when we look at the math, it just doesn't add up," Doyle said.

Massive Displacement Predicted

On the other hand, Ed Hess, professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business, sees a dire future for workers as companies adopt AI, 3-D printing, driverless vehicles and other advanced technologies.

"There will be tens of millions of jobs lost," Hess told SHRM Online, noting that he has heard the cheery arguments of the "techno optimists." Some jobs will be created, he said. But there's a question of whether automation can generate enough jobs that the advancing technology itself cannot do.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

"There will be nowhere near enough jobs," Hess said, citing a 2015 Bank of England forecast that the United States could lose 80 million jobs by about 2030 because of advances in technology. Hess, co-author of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), also cited Oxford University research predicting that technology will likely take over 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in the next 10 to 15 years.

In a press release for their book, Hess and co-author Katherine Ludwig said that 7 million U.S. manufacturing jobs were lost in the past 35 years, mostly because of automation. That's only a warm-up for upcoming tech-related job losses, they said.

The Industrial Revolution, which occurred from the 18th to 19th centuries, destroyed jobs in England. It took 60 to 80 years "before the human misery was alleviated" and enough new positions were created, Hess said. "The new jobs don't come all at once."

And many of the new jobs that will replace those lost to AI will require technological and scientific skills that displaced workers won't have, he said.

But there are other ways to look at it, speakers at the SHRM India Tech '17 conference and exposition said last month in Hyderabad, India.

"There was a time when everybody thought that the job of a [bank] teller would probably go away because you would have ATMs and people wouldn't want to come to branches," said Gaurav Ahluwalia, managing director of human resources for the investment bank JP Morgan Chase in Mumbai.

"That really hasn't happened. That job is still there. It has been redefined … where that person is doing more than dispensing money," he said.

 But the changes brought about by AI will challenge the social, political, educational and economic systems, Hess said.

Hess predicts that jobs that don't require emotional intelligence, critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills, or the kind of manual dexterity that plumbers and electricians need, will disappear. While farming and manufacturing jobs disappeared in the past, the tech revolution will mean the loss of white-collar jobs, including those for lawyers, physicians, CPAs, consultants and investment bankers, as well as for retail, trucking, fast-food and construction workers, he said.

"We're talking about a major global transformation," Hess said. "It's scary, and we are not prepared for it. We as a country are not prepared for it."

The number of people with full-time jobs will be a small proportion of the U.S. adult population, and American culture isn't equipped to handle an economy based on those job prospects, Hess predicted.

While Europe, India and other countries have big social safety nets, "we have one of the most individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest cultures in the world," Hess said. "We are going to need a big [shift in attitude toward a] 'we' culture … [a sense of] we're all in this together." The United States needs a community-minded, national conversation about how to prepare for such change, he said.

"The countries that solve it the best are going to have the most power in the world," Hess said.

 

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, covering workplace issues, health care, small business, entrepreneurship, personal finance and logistics.

 

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