I guess that the TV show “60 Minutes” aired a program on automation and jobs. I say “guess” because I don’t watch that show. Haven’t for 20 years. It became infamous for its creative editing of interviews.

Seems that the focus of the show came from “Race Against the Machine” (taken from the old John Henry ballad) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. I saw a post on McAfee’s blog that was complimentary of the piece. The message is that automation replaces jobs.

For some reason in spite of the facts, the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), calling itself “the global advocate for the automation industry,” issued a statement saying it “is disappointed in how 60 Minutes portrayed the industry in Sunday night’s ‘March of the Machines’ segment.”

“While the 60 Minutes depiction of how technological advances in automation and robotics are revolutionizing the workplace was spot on, their focus on how implementation of these automation technologies eliminates jobs could not be more wrong,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of A3, a trade group representing some 650 companies from 32 countries involved in robotics, vision, and motion control technologies. “We provided 60 Minutes producers several examples of innovative American companies who have used automation to become stronger global competitors, saving and creating more jobs while producing higher quality and lower cost products, rather than closing up shop or sending jobs overseas. They unfortunately chose not to include these companies in their segment. With respect to MIT Professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee who gave their viewpoint in the piece, they are missing the bigger picture.”

Employment

While the trade association makes a point that some companies have added jobs because of robots (one of the main product groups within the association–the others being vision and motion control), the big picture is that automation in general and robotics in particular have eliminated many jobs. When you look at manufacturing output and relation to GDP in dollar terms, manufacturing is still significant. However, when you look at total employment, it has been declining for some time.

That is not all bad. Much of the work done by robotics was unsafe, unhealthy and difficult for humans. Getting manufacturing work done without injuring people is a good thing. Productivity is a good thing. As our manufacturing companies become more productive and efficient, they also become globally competitive.

I support robotics, vision and motion control technologies. They have advanced manufacturing significantly over the past 30 years. But not necessarily as a job creator. New jobs will come from new companies building new things that we don’t even imagine right now.

Skills needed

There are new jobs, though. And these jobs require education and skills. The problem is for unskilled labor. We built up a huge jobs engine for unskilled labor through the first 70 years of the last decade. The jobs were often back-breaking, but they also paid well. They were also monotonous. Unsafe. Unhealthy. Men often died very soon after retirement because their bodies were worn down.

Late 19th century writers saw the coming of mass industrialization. Up until then, manufacturing was done by craftsmen. One piece at a time. Their soul went into the making of the piece. Every little town had its blacksmith who created fine things out of metal. But philosophers began to see the production line and division of labor breaking down that craftsmanship. They preached that this took the “soul” out of the making of products.

In the 80s, a book entitled “The Second Industrial Divide” looked at that problem and predicted a return of craftsmen as we entered an era of “mass customization.” I know many craftsmen in manufacturing these days. Many are called technicians. These people are not so alienated from their product as the earlier generation.

Myths of Manufacturing

I wrote about this last August. There I noted–One question to me is what is to become of unskilled labor? Take a look at some comments from McAfee’s latest blog from older manufacturing workers. “You didn’t need a high school diploma.” “You just needed to be a hard worker, and you needed to show up every day, because it wasn’t easy work.” “The skills I had weren’t really applicable”.

And I concluded:

Part of the answer is to provide more and better education to more of our population. There are millions of jobs that require some sort of technical education. It may not always require a university degree, but it will require something beyond basic high school work. Let’s make more unskilled people skilled people.

What I like about “The Race Against the Machine” is that the authors do not end in pessimism. They offer what they call the “tip of the iceberg” of prescriptions. Here’s my summary of the top of the tip of the ideas:
• Invest in education
• Teach entrepreneurship as a skill
• Lower government barriers to business creation
• Invest to upgrade the country’s communications and transportation infrastructure
• Increase funding for basic research
• Reform patent system

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