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Robotics: an alternative view

The New York Times is carrying an excellent article on robotics and how, actually, automation is not going to oust people from jobs.

It has a lot of good points. Unemployment is down, so if the robots want to take our jobs they’re being uncharacteristically inefficient about it; it also points out that automation has always forced jobs to evolve and the current wave of automation is no exception. There is a perception of employment vanishing because of deserted high streets and closed shops in malls, but the service industry, languages and soforth have never been more fruitful.

Well…yes. All of this is correct, but it doesn’t make life any easier if you’re in the middle of it.

Call for retraining

Let’s say you were working in a big chain of shops. Your people skills are excellent, you’re a little more senior than some so you can do stuff like mental arithmetic. You don’t have to rely on the till to add things up – customers can see you know what you’re doing. And you made best salesperson of the month just about every month last year.

The store, meanwhile, is on the hit list of stores to close. You’re offered an alternative position in Arkensas; unfortunately you’re in California and that’s quite a commute. It’s OK though, because the company is growing so there will be back office positions and web marketing opportunities and the overall head count will be larger than it was before.

You have none of those skills and your store is closing.

Intelligent Sourcing is not saying these changes shouldn’t happen. We’re not saying they should be resisted, they are inevitable. The point we’d make, though, is that it’s glib for media, analysts and academics to point to growth in overall jobs and to take no account of the people on the ground who find their job is growing in a direction that no longer works for them. This is, in part, how you get to the resentment felt by a lot of working people worldwide when they get told that their economy is booming and it’s all wonderful when they don’t know how they’re going to afford to eat in the longer term.

The substance of the NYT article is correct. Change is inevitable and after a period of settling down, it’s almost always pretty neutral for the total amount of jobs available. However, for the people in the jobs that are fading away, we’d urge sensitivity – and better than that, we’d call for an active effort to invest in retraining and redeployment. At the moment a lot of them feel fobbed off with statistics and figures they don’t recognise from their experience, and that’s no good for anyone.

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