Happy Labor Day (in the US).

We’re still debating automation vs. manufacturing jobs or something like that.

My friend Walt Boyes, who left Control magazine a few months after I left Automation World, is finally blogging again. He started about the same time I did in late 2003 or early 2004, but his employer moved it from independent to part of its mothership. Evidently as part of his leaving, he was able to keep the name, Sound Off. And all of us who know and love Walt know that the title of the blog is well earned.

He recently wrote about automation and jobs and the mess in Ferguson, MO.

There is no doubt in my mind that automation and robotics have eliminated some working class jobs. Many of the jobs, however, were dirty, dangerous and physically debilitating. We needed machinery to improve the lot and safety of the workers.

Have you ever seen pictures of early manufacturing plants? Have you visited a modern automotive manufacturing plant? You could never imagine that they are doing the same thing. I think we are going through one of those disruptive times.

And it is not all machine vs. human. Some is economic. The things that we (as a society) purchase have changed. We keep cars longer. We buy electronics on a six-month cycle. We are also entering a period of reduced labor supply.

Shortly the baby boomers will really retire. They’ll have to be supported by the “baby bust” generation. We are going to have to learn to do more with less. We will need robots to help the aging boomers in their healthcare needs. We won’t have as many operators and technicians. We may not realize it, but we are preparing for a new era.

Walt brings up the closure of an automotive plant where Ferguson residents could formerly work and earn middle class wages. It is closed. It is not closed because of automation. It is closed because clueless managers could not design cars that people wanted. They did not understand supply chain economics and outsourced manufacturing only to learn (I wish) to their chagrin that the economics did not support that. These managers cared not for customers or their own employees (hourly and salaried alike). I could write a book just on the ethics of the past 50 years of manufacturing management and the impact on society.

I bet miners would love some automation that makes work safer underground. And we would all profit from managers in the coal industry less focused on beating down employees and more focused on finding better ways to use coal that would be less harmful to the environment.

America does not have much of a “labor movement” like in the first half of the 20th Century. But we still need to pause and appreciate the efforts of everyone who works to provide us with a better life.

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