Amazon is hiring 20,000 fewer seasonal workers this year than they did last year. How did they accomplish that? “Automation has allowed us to offer increasing selection with faster delivery at lower cost. This is a virtuous cycle allowing our business to continue to grow and create more jobs,” a spokesman told Fast Company.
Walmart produced similar sound bites for the same article, but union leaders pushed back. “Make no mistake, Walmart’s move to autonomous floor cleaners is not about better serving customers and workers,” said the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “This latest job-killing venture has the potential to destroy over 5,000 maintenance jobs in the U.S. if it is implemented in every Walmart store.”
Are robots job killers?
Automation can probably take over about one third of all the tasks human workers do. That’s not one third of the jobs– it’s an average of one third of the tasks for each job. Some jobs will become outdated. Models, miners, travel agents and tax preparers will probably need to develop some new skills.
Dangerous tasks, those that are dull and repetitive enough that humans can’t do them without error or unhappiness — those actions will be moved over to robots and replaced with jobs more worthy of human intellect.
But current data doesn’t support the claim that robots are coming for our jobs.
Are managers killing jobs?
Middle management jobs are among the most threatened. But the kinds of decisions unions are talking about when it comes to automation are up to human managers.
Can Walmart destroy 5,000 maintenance jobs by bringing in robot floor cleaners? Put it another way: if you can save money and increase productivity by automating some tasks, can someone stop you from doing so?
We are being asked to imagine maintenance workers triumphantly pushing around floor cleaning machines. Captains of industry, prevented from replacing them with autonomous floor cleaning machines, ruefully shake their heads.
“I guess we got our comeuppance this time,” they sigh. “Still, we saved 5,000 jobs.”
This is ridiculous. If jobs which could be better done by robots must be artificially saved for humans, we’re doing it wrong.
Could artisanal floor cleaning become a highly-prized feature of really posh stores? Probably not. Floor cleaning isn’t a job that should be saved for humans. Warehouse work at Amazon — $15.00 a hour wages or not — probably isn’t in that class, either.
Luddites were early 19th century skilled machine operators who wanted better wages for their work. Neo-Luddites sometimes seem to be asking for laws that preserve jobs for humans, whether humans are actually needed for those jobs or not.
That’s probably not the best approach.
Plans for retraining human workers may be more practical.
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