Automation a threat to employees

“Where there’s money to be saved, there’s money to be made.” Many inventors and entrepreneurs have kept this statement in mind when considering their next product.

One way to save money is to design a technological machine which can replace human workers. Machines can be initially expensive, but their purchase price and maintenance costs can sometimes be cheaper than a human’s hourly rate or salary. This in turn leads employers to choose the machine over the human to reduce costs and increase their bottom line. Although I am optimistic that technological advancements can improve the human condition in areas such as education and healthcare, we should be cautious of converting to automation too hastily in workplaces.

With constant concern around Canadian and international unemployment rates, it only makes sense to avoid replacing human jobs with machines. Not only does automation replace jobs, but it also widens the gap between the rich and the poor. When business owners employ workers, they allow profits to be spread to their staff.

When they opt to use machines instead, they end this process and increase their own margins instead.As individuals of a consumer society, we have the power to slow down the transition to automation by opting to be served by humans rather than machines.

Most students who no longer live with their parents find themselves making weekly or bi-weekly trips to a grocery store. After finding all the items on their lists, shoppers are left with a significant decision: to pay at self-checkout or with a human cashier. Sometimes the human cashier may take longer than the self-checkout process, but I try my best to avoid the automated technology to contribute to the demand for cashiers.

If all customers were willing to use the self-checkout, the number of waged jobs available at grocery stores would decrease significantly. When self-checkout stations are set up in grocery and department stores, they are designed to have four to eight machines supervised by a single employee.

This setup cuts out three to seven jobs that would have previously existed before the creation of this technology. If more consumers opt to use human cashiers, business owners will be discouraged from ordering additional machines since the ones they own are not being utilized. Closer to home for all of us, another worrisome example can be drawn from our own Laurier Library.

At the beginning of this semester I was waiting at the Circulation Desk to checkout some books when I was approached by one of the librarians. He politely asked if I would be willing to accept a quick tutorial on the self-checkout device situated near the reserve book return. To avoid being rude, I accepted knowing that I would never use the machine again.

After showing me the process of using the machine, he explained that the university was trying to raise awareness of this option and get students to checkout their own books. I am glad students prefer to use the Circulation Desk because it maintains the demand for our librarians. If students decided to use the machine instead of the librarians, their workload would be reduced but this might result in less positions being required.

This would allow the university to save on expenditures, but I highly doubt these saving would be passed on to students through reduced tuition. Although I am cautious about our hasty transition to the use of automation presently, I believe that these technologies will prove more useful in the future. If our working population ever begins to decline, we can replace missing workers with machines, but we should not undergo this process to simply improve the bottom line.

One Comment

  1. I find it interesting that you choose to start your article with one of the oldest economic myths in history. I should point out to you that it is true that automating a process that used to require a number of workers to do does mean that there will be jobs lost in that particular area. However what this means is that the labour of these workers is now freed up for other tasks. It is a fact of economic history that technological advances lead to economic growth and therefore more jobs.

    I feel that I should also point out to you that switching to an automated system also requires the creation of new jobs. You use the example of a super market beginning to use self checkout rather than the traditional cashier as an example of how automation leads to a loss of jobs. What you seem to have missed in this particular instance is that that machinery had to be produced by someone which is a job that would not have existed before. I should also point out that machines break and have to be fixed which is another new job.

    You also seem not to understand that economic progress is based upon the advancement of technology. Take farming for example. Farming is an extremely labour incentive task. Looking back on the early days of farming everything had to be done by hand. When the animals were first domesticated and used as farm labour one could say that those animals cost some people their jobs, which would technically be true but it also allowed these people to devote their time to other tasks such as potting and blacksmithing to name a few. In short the technological advance allowed people who previously had to be farmers to specialize in new careers that could not have existed previously because to many people were needed to do the farming. The same principle applies in our industrial age. Just because one job stops existing does not mean that the person that previously held that job will now be permanently unemployed. The study of economic history shows again and again that better technology allows for more specialization which grows the economy which leads to a wealthier society.

    I also feel the need to deal with your idea that with unemployment in Canada being so high what we should do limit automation where the job could be done by a person. I hate to break it to you but there are much more important things that lead to high unemployment than automation. But that aside is slowing down the economic advancement of the country to ‘save’ jobs a good idea?

    Finally I have to deal with this implicit idea throughout the article that seems to say that we have a social responsibility to make sure that people have jobs. I hate to break it to you but I can not think of a more destructive idea. What ideas like this do is slow the economic growth of a society. Ether by not allowing the economy to expand with new technology or by some other kind of control which limits growth.

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