I’ve blogged before about the job destroying impact of automation and robotics. Once a machine can do a job, it’s gone. Peter Coy of Bloomberg has a different take. He believes humans and robots will work together in a future society. Robots will do work that is rote and mindless. Humans will perform tasks that require creativity and emotional response.
Hopefully Coy is right, but I’m more pessimistic. Coy talks about the improvements in voice recognition software. How many phone sales and customer service jobs have been lost because of this innovation? How many more will be lost in the future? Similarly cloud storage is enabling companies to cut staff that manages network and IT support functions. Driverless vehicles, when they are perfected (not if), will push many workers out of a job.
I hope the optimists like Coy and many smiling futurists are right in predicting work will become more creative in the age of robots. I’m less sanguine. As Coy states, too many jobs involve rote tasks that can be automated. I grew up near the steel mills in Cleveland. Within ten years, 4 steel mills were closed because European competitors sold cheaper, higher quality steel produced with automated functions. The city was devastated and has never fully recovered. That was industrial automation. Now the service industry and professional services are being automated. What sane employer will pay an employer if she can invest in and profit from a much cheaper, more efficient robot?
I was taken aback by a large headline on Huffington Post: “1 in 4 Americans Open to Secession.” Could a quarter of American really feel this way? That’s a question driven by fear. In reality, the news isn’t that shocking. About 30% of Americans are conservatives who are not fans of big government. Put in that context, it’s surprising that even more Americans aren’t open to secession.
We saw similar frightening statistics when the American job market bled jobs in 2008 and 2009. Many people I talked to were paralyzed by what they heard on the news. Now many people are getting cocky because statistics say the job market is improving. As I noted in my last post, these statistics are true in that there are more jobs available now than there were four years ago. However, the problem on every level of the career ladder is pay. Many new jobs are low wage jobs. Many people have gotten small raises or no raises at all over the last five years. We need to look behind the statistics and get past the fear and the optimism.
The media is often overly negative in talking about the job market. Sometimes I fall into the same trap. Yesterday I talked about jobs being lost to automation, which is a big problem. However, there is another side to the story. In just this week, I have worked with clients whose jobs were created by new technology. One person was a social media community manager. The other worked on Cloud technology and software that is not stored on our computers. While it is important to criticize problems caused by technology, we also need to recognize that some jobs will be created by advances in technical systems. One way to win the job game is to find a way to take advantage of those changes
I was shopping at a local grocery store (Jewel-Osco) today and noticed that the self-checkout aisle had been closed. The woman at the checkout counter told me that the corporation has scrapped the machines. This is good news because it means that new cashiers will have to be hired, and this chain hires union employees, so the jobs will be decently paid.
As I’ve written in the past, automation has destroyed more American jobs than offshoring. In this case, a company has decided to pay people rather than invest in self-serve machines operated by consumers. This is a small victory, but it is still a win.
Yesterday the big story was that 2.5 million workers could drop out of the labor market because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a., Obamacare). This story is another example of craven politics and lazy reporting. The 2.5 million people cited are currently employed. Most would be replaced by their employers, so job loss would be minimal. Some of those leaving employers will start businesses of their own, which will create jobs. No reporters asked the simple questions. They like the big numbers and bad news. The political opponents of the ACA will use any number to claim the bill does not work. These are the same people – conservative Republicans – who oppose any measure that helps working people: unemployment benefits, increased minimum wage, government-sponsored jobs, high speed rail, and green jobs. Based on my experience with Blue Cross Blue Shield and how busy that company seems to be, the ACA is generating jobs. Beware of falling for scary stories that make no sense. Those who want to control working people want to keep us afraid and uninformed.
Daily Kos explodes the lies that the mainstream media missed.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a story about how a bad boss turns good. Scrooge is a small business owner who abuses and insult his employee, Bob Cratchit. He only cares about money. After being visited by the Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future, Scrooge is a changed man who “keeps Christmas in his heart” every day. At the end of the story, the bad boss becomes a best friend, giving Cratchit a raise and treating his boy Tiny Tim as his own son.
Stories in the real world don’t normally have such a happy ending. Bad bosses stay bad, and companies that put money before people lay people off days before Christmas. A few weeks ago I saw a client who had worked for the same company for 30 years. He was laid off because his salary was too high. Another client who worked for the same company for 20 years was laid off so a member of the owner’s family could take his place. So much for loyalty. Over 6,000 employees at Dominick’s stores in Chicago are being laid off a few days after Christmas, so a Wall Street investment firm can pump up the value of the store’s parent company, Safeway.
Most companies and bosses won’t change as Scrooge did. They don’t care about the time of the year or the hardship of employees who are losing jobs. All that matters is the bottom line. Dickens imagines Scrooge as a man who has a conscience and is capable of change. Sadly, too many large investors and corporate leaders in our time have not been visited by the Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future. They have no feeling for others and think only about what they can gain. Scrooge would pity them.
A good friend’s son got unexpected bad news today. His division is being disbanded, and he’ll be out of a job in six weeks. When he called me, I worried about how he would be dealing with this misfortune. I would have been angry, maybe even self-pitying (poor, poor me).
My friend’s son was the exact opposite. While not happy, he was looking forward and even sounded excited about some jobs he had found online. He told me that he was ready to try to apply his skills in some new ways, which will give him even more opportunity to find a new job quickly.
This incident reminds me of one of my favorite lessons from Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, says that we cannot control our fate. What we can control is our attitude toward that fate. My friend’s son has managed to stay positive even in the face of bad news. That’s the best way to handle a layoff.
I love baseball, and this weekend I attended minor league games in Indianapolis, Nashville, and Louisville. While in Louisville, I took a tour of the Louisville Slugger Museum, which features a working factory that makes bats for big leaguers and recreational players. During the tour, we learned that from the 1880s to the 1970s, bats were made by hand. They were the work of craftsmen who used their hands and eyes. A good bat maker could carve a bat in 20-30 minutes. By the late 1970s an automated process was devised with a new lathe that could carve a bat in 30 seconds. Great for the company, not so good for the men who worked the lathes.
This story underscores the impact of automation on work. One of the lathes at Louisville Slugger could cut more in an hour than a man could do in a day. No sane business would continue to work in an inefficient manner. Layoffs were necessary. Similar advances have led to millions of layoffs in manufacturing, assembly, and supply chain. Better technology means fewer jobs. No company can stick with people when machines can do as good or better a job at a much lower cost. We all love innovation, but we have to look realistically at its aftereffects. Faster, cheaper, and more efficient usually means people will lose their jobs. The challenge is to generate new jobs in a world where machines, software, and automation are improving all the time. What will we do if a time comes when we have more people than jobs?
Common Dreams reports on the global impact of austerity programs, especially how they are impacting job growth. Citing a recent report by the International Labor Organization, the authors note that countries embracing cost cutting programs have seen the worst job losses (in the U.S., see Wisconsin). They argue that government intervention will do more to spur job growth. I think the scariest news comes at the end of the article when the authors cite the ILO report finding “a downward spiral of wages.” Fewer jobs. Workers with less income and security. Who wins this game? The 1%.
One of my clients has done very well with a large corporation. In 2010 and 2011, she received awards for superior performance. Yesterday at 4 p.m., I received a call from this client. She is being laid off because her department is being eliminated. She didn’t have any hint that this would happen.
What should my client do? First, understand that any layoff – expected or unexpected – is an emotional blow. She will experience grief, anger, and all of the other emotions that come with any kind of loss. She needs to give herself time to deal with those feelings. Then get focused and moving. If she is eligible, my client should file for unemployment insurance. Then start the job search – Don’t stop until she’s landed her next job.
It’s never easy to deal with an unexpected loss. However, you need to keep in mind that such things happen, and deal with them in a way that keeps your life moving forward.
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