First there was outsourcing. Then came offshoring. Now several industries are rushing to move jobs to robots. Each wave affects employees, usually not for the better, As the robot wave picks up speed, the next group feels the pain and so on. The trend is not a positive one for people who work for a living. Here are the four waves to date.
- Company employees lost their jobs to computerization and software programs.
- Company employees lost their jobs to contractors and outsourcing firms.
- American workers lost their jobs to cheaper employees in low-wage countries.
- Human beings are losing their jobs to manufacturing robots, kiosks, job-specific software, ATMs, and, now, customer service robots.
The Wall Street Journal reported the latter trend in “Robots on Track to Bump Humans from Call-Center Jobs” by Trefor Moss. It seems the Indian and Philippine call-center operations that offshored jobs from American workers are now themselves being replaced by automation.
Currently this is affecting just “low-level” jobs but don’t get complacent. Mr. Trefor reports that within five years, robots will be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”
Like customer service wasn’t difficult enough already. Robotization will increase the frustration of human beings who want to be able to talk through an issue with someone who has insight and can make intuitive connections, someone with real judgment. Someone who doesn’t offer a limited number of options, none of which address your problem.
Job Security for Humans
In the same issue of @WSJ, Lauren Weber provides “Some Tips on Job Security in the Robot Age.” Ms. Weber interviews Tom Davenport who, with Julia Kirby, wrote a new book called “Only Humans Need Apply” and who gives some insight into how knowledge workers can survive the ongoing wave of automation.
He mentions the upcoming automation of financial advisors. Wow. Somehow I always thought money management and investing was a “knowledge work” job that required the kind of acuity, creativity, foresight, and responsiveness that comes packaged in the human brain. (Everyone who wants their money managed by a robot after Brexit, raise your hand!). I suppose this would work, though, if computers were running the world economy and could thus take all the volatility out of economic forecasting and financial management.
In the meantime, here are some things that robots will never do. Oh, we could program them to do it but they would never have a passion or need to:
Order a restaurant meal
- Get a pedicure or a haircut
- Buy a new dress or a suit
- Create a new and innovative product
- Find a market need and devise a way to fill it
- Run a marathon
- Fall in love
- Get married
- Start a new household
- Purchase new furniture and appliances
- Have a child
- Watch a TV program
- Go sailing, kayaking, hiking, camping, hunting or fishing
- Play golf, tennis, baseball, football, soccer, basketball, or hockey
- Stop and smell the roses
If you make products that service any of those markets, think twice about automating production. Unless human beings have jobs with real paychecks, they won’t be able to afford any of those things. Productivity will improve but the consumer base will dry up.
No Paycheck, No Customer
Meanwhile, Wendy’s and other fast-food restaurants are reacting to the drive for a $15 minimum wage by replacing human workers with self-order kiosks this year. Other fast-food restaurants are following suit and next week McDonald’s opens an outlet in Phoenix that is completely staffed by robots, including in the kitchen. (I see a malfunction sending burgers flying up in the air and fries cascading onto the floor.)
The people who were applying for jobs at these restaurants won’t be buying much of anything, however, because they won’t have paychecks. Instead they’ll be collecting unemployment and welfare. As Mr. Davenport says, “We believe job loss won’t be catastrophic but there will be some on the margins, and it’s a nasty experience for the people who do lose their jobs. They tend to lose them for the rest of their lives.”
We’re rushing headlong toward Skynet, smugly assuming that our job will never be taken over by a robot. After all, what machine could replace little old me? Perhaps CareerCast should pay more attention to this in one of its surveys about best jobs, best-paying jobs, and jobs with the best growth potential.
Because unemployed people don’t’ consume much. And, as I have said before, robots buy nothing.