In my last blog post I mentioned that I like the self checkouts. The ones in Target and Walmart. I received several comments about how "bad" they are because they take jobs away from people. Let's talk about this.
Jobs and technology have been a topic of conversation for the last 10 years or longer. I have consistently maintained that jobs are being lost (and replaced) by a technological revolution. Just like the industrial revolution replaced repetitive tasks with machines the same is now happening with robots, artificial intelligence, and yes..automated checkouts.
The industrial revolution allowed machines to make hundreds of an item that before was made one at a time. Those same people who made things one at a time from start to finish...were displaced by machines. No amount of complaining stopped the advent of the machines.
When I was in Europe, Portugal, this concept really hit me. Portugal is known for its gorgeous and intricate tile work. You see it in palaces, churches, walls, and many other historical buildings. In Sintra, outside of Lisbon there is a palace that was once a church and monastery. The Pena Palace was transformed between 1842-1854 by King Ferdinand.
The palace is gorgeous, the view spectacular. What was interesting was along with information about the rooms, was how the palace was transformed. There were several rooms that had floor to ceiling tile work that was intricate and beautiful. In those days, there was a master tile architect. This person would design the tiles to be placed in each room. He would create the intricate designs as well as where they would go. Next in line were managers or foremen who would oversee the drawing of the design onto the tiles. The craftsmen would paint the design on the tiles and then they would be fired. The foremen would make sure that all the tiles were uniform, the colors were the same, that they still fit together and were the right colors. How many times did they have to be redone? Next the tiles would be laid.
When you are inside this huge palace you realize that this took many people to create these masterpieces, perhaps thousands. This craftsmanship no longer exists. It's been replaced. First by automation, and now by technology. What a thousand people once did, is replaced by a 3D printer and a few people. I have bathroom tiles that look like a wood floor. Designs created by a 3D printer.
What to do about it? I remember years ago I read an article about how an outplaced autoworker who retrained. His job along with others were downsized and eventually replaced by robots. The robots do the painting and welding - repetitive tasks. To date they cannot replace human workers that do the finished and more detailed work...yet. "So yes, there are many manufacturing jobs that have been eliminated, and many more that will be eliminated, by our accelerating advances in robot technology."
This man took advantage of job retraining and ended up working in the chemical industry and was hired by Dow Chemical. He loves his new work. Gerald Crouterfield had worked in the automotive industry 19 years. “At first, when I lost my job, I was upset because I had worked in the auto industry for 19 years, but when I got into the training I saw a brighter future,” Crouterfield said.
Obviously for every Gerald Crouterfield there are people who refuse to be retrained or cannot be retrained. There are the coal miners who truly believe that coal will make a comeback. Workers are offered federal job retraining programs but in areas like Pennsylvania less than 20% have signed up.
3D printers, self driving cars, trucks, and buses, robot caregivers all will eventually replace employed people. There will come a day, when self checkouts are the norm. Jobs will change. Someone has to build those checkouts, maintain them, load the pricing, and make sure that everything gets charged properly. While 6 self checkouts take a job from 6 checkers, other jobs are created in the process. Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing says, “Manufacturing is going through an evolution that people call 'Industry 4.0,' and that’s going to take a different set of skills and training.” I agree. This applies to work in general, not just manufacturing. The way we work is changing.
Time marches on. Yet people only seem to be talking about the self checkouts. A small example of a much larger issue.