Unemployment caused by automation?


Jeffrey W. Eggenberger

The same outcry was heard when they brought out the cotton gin. "Machines don't buy clothes!" was the outcry. The rest is history. I
personally feel that automation frees us up for more "human" tasks than repetitive manual labor.

Jeffrey W. Eggenberger
Electrician: Industrial, Commercial, and Residential

Whew! That's a loaded question. There is a lot of debate on this, however, "automation" (more generally, advancing technology) has caused *higher* employment in the long term historically. Examples of this are the printing
press, cotton gin, automobile,....despite dire predictions to the contrary.

There is of course a short-term problem with displaced workers. Each country has to deal with it according to its particular culture. It would
not be possible to make a general rule about how to handle the situation, as things that would work in cultures will not work in others simply
because of employers', governments', and workers' attitudes. Although it is popular to take a macroeconomic view of the problem and solution, it is really a problem that *every* individual person should think about: "How are the rapid technological changes that are happening today going to affect me next year? In five years? Ten?"

You can find books with many different points of view on this, ranging from Marxist to Free Market. A quick perusal at Amazon using the search terms "technology" and "unemployment" yielded 20 books on the subject, most in English (but none in Portuguese). For a better understanding on how much cultural differences affect this, I would recommend "Riding the Waves of Culture", by Alfons Trompenaars. This is a good book for anyone who has an interest in globalization and international business.

In closing, as a person who has spent most of his life working in the area of automation, I am proud to be involved in this field; it makes me feel useful to be enabling machines which allow more people to have the things necessary for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I feel sorry for those who lose their jobs due to displacement; but realistically there is
no alternative in a world which is growing at such a rate. We don't land here with a ticket for a guaranteed lifetime job.


Willy Smith
Numatico SA
Costa Rica

Tanweer Ahmed

This is a general blame on automation sector that they create unemployment. This concept is based on that a manually operated plant needs hundreds of workers and operators and workers whereas an automated plant needs few of them.

Can some one say how many or what percent of such plants have been automated. I believe very few. Modern automation and control systems are mostly applied on new plants. A new plant means new employment opportunities.

If you compare the economic feasibility and profitability of a conventional and an automatic plant, the answer is obvious. Therefore more automated plants means more profitable business
ventures and economic growth. More economic growth means more employment opportunities.

The unemployment associated with automation are viewed by only the people who do not upgrade their skills with changing scenario.

Therefor in my opinion automation does not cause unemployment but opens new employment opportunities. However a shift in employment category in obvious.

Tanweer Ahmed
Phone: +9221-636 5519
Fax: +9221-568 2972
E-mail: [email protected]

Warren Postma

I suspect that the problem of unemployment due to lack of economic development and viable economic infrastructure, is either an equal or larger problem, and that automation is a necessary part of any developing economy that needs to become internationally competitive. I would be very curious to read a study that compares the
arguments in favour of automation (humans can be spared from dangerous or boring jobs, etc etc) to the arguments against it, both economic and

Underlying it there would have to be some examination of our varied attitudes towards work, careers, the labour movement, and so on.

Warren Postma
ZTR Control Systems
>I would like to receive your comments about unemployment caused
>by automation. How different countries are facing this problem ?

The U.S., which is arguably among the most heavily automated nations, is experiencing about the lowest unemployment levels in its history. While anecdotally you could cite specific instances of job loss being caused by automation efforts, in order to understand its full effect on society you must look at what happens to society as a whole. More goods being produced
with less human effort inevitably means a higher average standard of living (the goods must go *somewhere*). How the goods get spread around is another matter, involving many moral, political, practical and, perhaps, religious issues. Ain't gonna go there in this message, except to say that, in my view, using humans as machines is immoral and stupid. Frederick Winslow Taylor (time study) and Henry Ford (division of labor) got us there, and it's up to automation engineers to get us back out again.

Ken Crater
[email protected]

Anthony Kerstens

Saying that automation causes unemployment is a rather narrow statement. You must look at the grand picture.

Automation is a tool which assists in job safety and productivity gains. Companies employ automation in order to remain competitive. If the difference between a plant closing it's doors or losing a percentage of its workers is automation, what should a reasonable manager choose to do?

Competition is the root cause of unemployment.
Automation is the tool with which employment is maintained.

Anthony Kerstens P.Eng.
I don't believe that it is occurring.

If you mean pieceworkers displaced by automation in specific industries, I believe there are some studies that have been done, with more or less
believable statistics depending on who did the study. What appears to happen, over a generational baseline, is that it sorts itself out and unemployment maintains at a socially tolerable level, whatever that may be, in whatever country you are studying.

Typically, if you are a tradeunionist, or a socialist, or a social liberal of many different sorts, you believe this is happening and that it is bad. It is an article of faith. Typically, if you are not, you tend to believe that what is happening is the transference of work from non-productive to productive work. This too, is an article of faith.

There _is_ a shift going on that requires a much more knowledgeable workforce at all levels in the enterprise...and this is causing some serious
disruptions regionally. It is especially difficult in those areas whose public education systems work so badly that 25% or more of 18-year olds cannot read and write their native language. These people are permanently locked out of the work force.

You have to be careful with statistics, too, when you try to answer this question.

In the industrial automation industry, for example, a person who moves from a company that is counted in SIC 3800 to one in 8900, that could be counted as a "job loss" in the industry. It requires some investigation to discover that the person is still doing the same job, the statistical definition changed, so she isn't counted anymore.

Walt Boyes

Walt Boyes--MarketingPractice Consultants
21118 SE 278th Place - Maple Valley, WA 98038
425-432-8262 home office - 253-709-5046 cellphone
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Scott Jensen none

I believe that in some cases, the automation is installed so poorly that it has actually created more jobs. <grin> In alot of instances, it almost creates nearly as many higher tech jobs as it replaces. A large system needs alot of attention. System techs usually make more than the people that it replaced. The whole concept is they are making more product and can pay for it!

Scott Jensen
[email protected]
"The Lightning Man"
(Someday I'll tell you all how I got that nickname..)

Anthony Kerstens

Further to my earlier remarks, this discussion has
brought to mind some comments from an older worker
in an American mid-west steel plant.

He was generally upset with computers taking away
jobs. The billet caster he worked on went from 4
operators per shift to 2 as a result of automation. Essentially, he was angry and scared. Being close to retirement, his pension was of considerable concern to him. He railed against me because I was a "computer guy". I couldn't think of anything good to counter his extreme
negative state. I could well imagine he considered me as evil as any captain of industry.

The real evil is not doing what you have to do to
remain competitive because the bottom line is that
there are no lifetime guaranteed jobs. Even as an
engineer keeping myself up to date on the latest and greatest, I'm relying on my knowledge in much the same way that man relied on his union. I could find myself unemployable 10 years down the
road unless I pick the "right" technologies.

It's a cruel world, and ya gotta do whatcha gotta do... :-{

Anthony Kerstens P.Eng.
For the bigger picture on labor and resources go to amazon and see the reviews of natural capitalism by paul hawkens and amory and hunter lovins.

Dave Ferguson

I love to debate this topic. I used to have this conversation with my dad who has since passed away, but always "rode" me about my chosen field of work saying that I was part of the problem.

As has been said on the thread in the past "It usually depends on your perspective", If you are losing your job to automation, then it stinks. If you get a job building automation or computers or chips or instrumentation etc. then it is great.

I argued with him, he was a mechanical field Engineer for a mining company and he lived in town but had a hobby farm roughly 20 miles away. I used to say to him "If you feel the way you do, why do you ride your robotic horse (truck) to your farms and then get on your robotic ox (tractor) to pull your robotic farm hands (hay bailer) around the farm." Just think of the blacksmiths and the farm hands as well as stable people you are putting out of work.

If I were losing my job, I would be upset but........

"Adapt or die, and try to think outside the box............."

I appologize for the typing mistakes, I am riding in a truck and using my handheld to type this "Just think of the secretaries and postmen I am putting out of work with this damn e-mail."

No flames intended just my 32-cents worth (postage)...

Dave Ferguson
Blandin Paper Company
DAVCO Automation
>... It is especially difficult in those areas whose public education
systems work so >badly that 25% or more of 18-year olds cannot read and
write their native language. >These people are permanently locked out of
the work force.

What about in places where MORE than 25% of 18-year olds cannot read or write their native language (for example, in the United States)? Don't you think that the poor preparation that students are getting there will eventually cause some severe social problems? It seems to me that this will *not* be such a problem in developing countries with poorer standards of living; displaced workers have less to lose. In the US, however, where people are used to high standards of living, there is a good chance that the changes which are happening today will result in severe social problems in the not-too-distant future. This could also cause some heavy xenophobic backlash with the current wave of high-tech immigration.


Willy Smith
Numatico SA
Costa Rica

Doug McQueen ESI Electric Supply Inc.

Automation has made production safer and people more productive, etc,etc. The benefits to just a stand alone machine, has made a safer work place.

Now, making products faster and more competitive allows for a stronger overall economy. We see automation moveing forward and getting people out of a hazardous work position, into something else. The something else is a service position, with in the very plant they work. Or look at the transpartation industry, its incredible. Ten years ago it was a serious decision to air freight
parts/components. Look at it now, its constant. Air freight used to be justified by "we can't
be down" well it still is and always will be, it wouldn't surprise me if someone wanted to fly
in six-pairs of socks because they are down to two-pair. I don't see the jobs being lost by automation. I see new and more opportunity for people here.

When a given process is made to be: safer, cleaner, faster with less pollution.
its nonsense to go back, its counter productive and of course easily proven un-safe.

Matthew da Silva

In this age of fugitive possibilities, change is the only certainty. Now, more than at any time in the past several decades, an awareness of frail human nature and of our eminently breakable
societ(ies) causes us to lose sleep. And yet it is an ill wind, that blows no good.

Mr. Rosa is speaking from experience and it may be some consolation to recall the frightful changes that have occurred in the past even, only, of the English-speaking peoples. The cotton-jenny revolution, the shift of steel away from the Severn valley to cheaper places in continental Europe. Each time, pundits predicted the end of economic independence.

Well, it didn't happen then and it won't happen now. Automation is to the current age what meachanization was to the industrial revolution. In fifty years, we'll be wondering how life was without automated email messaging. Great benefits will derive from 'Internetization' and they can only be realized through automation, by spurring the automation 'mind-set,' but now we are still in the thick of the establishment phase. Manufacturers are setting down the infrastructure at the 'back end,' required to automate. their
enterprise-critical processes. Farther on, down the track and around a few bends that will emerge from the mist, engineers will find new challenges and other employees will find new solutions.
One such challenge has less to do with physical infrastructure than with the taxonomies that automation requires to proceed, in a competitive world.

Fieldbus standards are only the first step in this experience. New skills are needed that are not in the traditional purview of automation. Librarians, linguists, diplomats. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker ...
I hoped nobody would bite on that one. I specifically did not mention the US because of the fact that most people don't want to discuss the abject failure of public education in this country.

Of course it is a problem. It is already a problem, and combine it with the fact that the current graduation classes are the smallest in the history of the nation, you are already seeing engineering graduates from Stanford getting offers like $75k or $85K TO START, with no practical experience except two summers of coop. We NEED the immigrant geniuses like Jim Pinto
and John Titus and many many more.

We have to ensure that educational quality and educational equity exists everywhere in the world. But the educational establishments in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe aren't interested in doing that.

Walt Boyes

Ramer-1, Carl

Years ago, my Economics professor related a story about the ancient Egyptians. The tale was that many men would go to the fields and each would poke a hole in the ground with a stick, place
a wheat seed in the hole then cover the hole and move on. One day a clever planter took his stick and dragged a furrow in the ground, placed seeds in the furrow then covered them up. He planted ten times as much wheat as anyone else. The Pharoah was worried that with only a few men now needed to plant all the wheat that the remaining 90 percent of idle workers would become
restless and cause problems. The Pharoah devised a plan to have the idle workers build him a pyramid, so everyone lived harmoniously and ate well. My professor compared the Space Program to the story and called it the modern pyramid.

The moral of this is that the "automation" which relieved 90 percent of the workers from dull, boring, mindless jobs created an opportunity for them to create wonders which still puzzle us today. Automation doesn't create unemployment, it creates scalar employment. Those unwilling or unable to be trained to do something different (usually better, too) may be considered
"unemployed", but in my opinion that's a poor choice of words.

Of course, we could always revert to having water driven wheels grinding wheat into flour...oops, can't do that it's automated. Umm...maybe a hollow rock and a round rock and lots of people
grinding flour? We could always sell it in the health food stores as "Hand Ground" and charge a high price for it.

Carl Ramer, Engineer (third time retrainee)
Space Gateway Support, Inc.
Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Unsponsored personal comment

Ralphsnyder, Grayg

Automation CAN generate a more consistent product, make a safer workplace for employees, and get employees out of mundane (for a lack of a better word) job positions. Workers do get displaced from task 'A' but there are a zillion other tasks at any business that need to be taken care of. Unemployment is a result of management decisions.

Grayg Ralphsnyder
I have been lurking on the list, reading the "Unemployment caused by Automation" messages, and feel that perhaps it is time to chip in my 2-cents.....

Automation caused (past-tense) displacement of manual labor. The first major example was the mechanical cloth mills in England, which caused the price of cloth to reduce by something like 90-95% and displaced masses of workers in central England. The backlash came from "Luddites" ( a guy called Ned Ludd, I think) accidentally broke a machine, and then the "Luddites" started braking machines by "accident". In any case, manual spinning and weaving soon disappeared.

The more recent "revolution" was office automation, and the displacement of the typewriter (by word processors and printers) and adding machines (by spread-sheets).

The "next revolution" is not industrial automation, but the fast increasing dependence of humans on "synthetic intelligence". The modern day Luddite was the Unabomber, who advocated
abolishing machines. He was so frustrated by his inability to affect the advance of "machines" that he resorted to bombing, to get attention.

Ted Kaczynski is an Engineer, and (while I do NOT agree with his message and his tactics) his message is worth reading, especially by
Engineers like ourselves - you can see the full text of his Unabombers Manifesto (which several newspapers published) at : http://www.thecourier.com/manifest.htm

To encourage you to read the whole (quite long) thing, here is how it starts :

"1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in "advanced" countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread
psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings
to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in "advanced" countries. "

If you are so inclined, take a look at my latest presentation at Dick Morley's Chaos Conference at Santa Fe last month (May 2000): "Symbiotic Life in the 21st Century" :

Or, read Kurzweil's book : "The Age of Spiritual Machines" which discusses when Machine-intelligence will exceed human intelligence:

Serious things to think about, especially for us Engineers.....

Jim Pinto
[email protected]
San Diego, CA - USA

Anthony Kerstens

Actually, the modern equivalent of high priced food would be that "organic" stuff that's not regulated (in Canada anyway :).

Oh, yeah, another benefit of automation is food safety. What a choice: unemployment or food poisoning?

Anthony Kerstens.