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Daniel Milde English 1103 Campbell 10/3/13

Cheaper Than China- A Look Into the Changing Job Landscape “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity” Albert Einstein. I can clearly remember a time a few years back when the phone would ring and a real person was on the other end. In a polite and calm voice they would proceed to ask me if I wanted to save money on my car insurance. While this was an annoying reoccurrence, I knew it was their job and I tried my best to politely decline. I didn’t realize that I would learn to miss this human contact. A few weeks ago I picked up the phone again answering with a traditional “Milde household, how may I help you?” What I expected to be a warm human voice turned out to be an automated recording. I couldn’t help but feel a little silly speaking to someone who couldn’t actually respond, but I began to realize that something else was missing. While I was somewhat glad that I could avoid the awkward situation of speaking to a stranger, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the polite person on the other side.

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My point is that although technology has always been viewed as a vital step in the development of the world, the rapid growth and widespread use of it in the past decade has been unprecedented in that it has pervaded mainstream society. In an age where children are being raised with tablets in one hand and a smart phone in the other, technology has affected lives in a more personal way than before. Nowadays information can be found quickly through use of the internet, and new medical technologies have increased the average life expectancy to incredible lengths. With these astounding leaps in technology some leading scientists are proclaiming that this rapid growth may also have a dark side that we have chosen to ignore: the ever increasing encroachment of machines on the average workplace. What used to be blue collar, humandominated jobs, are today run by machines that can work cheaper, longer, and more efficiently than humans ever could. Without the limitations of sleeping and eating, these automated workers have proven themselves as far cheaper alternatives to outsourcing. This begs the question: If machines are so much more efficient than humans, how long will it be before businesses choose to move on to fully automated workers? And if this does happen, what will our society do to compensate for the large lack of jobs? As I sought out to answer these questions, the search focused primarily on the extent of automated manufacturing in today’s market. In foreign manufacturing companies, such as in China, it seems that what only a few years ago was an industry dominated by cheap labor, is today characterized by sprawling factory floors without any human interaction outside of overseeing the machines. This drastic change in the manufacturing landscape has shown that automation is not only cheaper than manual labor, but more efficient as well. In fact, according to MHI, a logistics and material handling organization, over 74% of manufacturing professionals are considering fully automating their facilities in order to cut down on unneeded costs (MHI). It

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seems that the more technology is implemented into businesses, the less variability (mainly human error) that is possible in results. Despite the growing trend in implementing automated manufacturing, it appears as if this seemingly incredible efficiency comes with a cost. According to some critics, these costs are real. MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in a study concerning the changes in the service industry, believe that the 79.7% efficiency in the service industry (which is due in large part to its increasing automation) is more disconcerting than relieving. When compared to the manufacturing industry of the United States it becomes clear that a significant disparity exists within blue collar jobs as well. In their book Race Against the Machine, the professors argue that the growth in productivity in the past few years of the United States has indeed been astounding, yet the usual increase in employment rates that couples with productivity has been unusually low, which is referred to by the professors as the “great decoupling”(Atkinson). This unusual disparity has not been accounted for by economists, but Brynjolfsson claims that this could be directly related to the advancements in technology within manufacturing and businesses. As advanced super computers and automated assembly lines become commonplace, machines are beginning to replace Chinese workers in their cost effectiveness. What’s more startling is that some companies are beginning a process of “reshoring”, in which manufacturing is brought back to the home country after outsourcing in order to lessen production costs. One such company is Automation GT, an American automotive design and manufacturing firm that has recently brought its manufacturing back from China to the United States. CEO and president of Automation GT Simon Grant says that because of the increasingly smaller scale of parts and machines it “creates the potential for workplace injury, quality issues and an overall slowing of

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throughput”, something that Grant believes can be easily fixed through automation (Spence). This newfound trend is only possible due to the cheap efficiency of robotics as compared to outsourcing, and it foreshadows a possible movement that may soon be sweeping the globe. Brynjolfsson believes that this trend may spread to other occupations as technology improves in the future. However there are those that disagree with this dismal prospect. Richard Florida from the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that technology alone will not endanger blue collar workers, but instead humanity will be responsible for the loss or gain of jobs in the future. He continues to say that society has formed very different views on the influence of technology in the world. On the one hand, there are thoughts that reflect what Florida calls "technoutopianism", in which technology acts as a driving force behind a good and efficient life. The main driving force behind this theory is that human beings will develop technology that is so intelligent and efficient that it could be used to run the majority of operations. On the other side of the spectrum are the “techno pessimists”- those that believe that “the rates of innovation and economic growth have slowed” in recent years (Florida). These “pessimists” argue that recent innovations have moved away from the huge leaps and bounds characterized by the space and nuclear arms races of previous years, and are instead more focused on insignificant conveniences and luxuries such as cell phones and computers. While there does seem to have been a shift in the focus of recent technological innovations, it appears to be deeper than what these “pessimists” argue. A student discussion paper written by Karen Korzep discusses the effects of technology within the medical field, along with the risks and benefits of using such technologies as the “da Vinci” robot, which is used for advanced surgeries (Hans). She goes on to detail the amazing

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possibilities that robotics provides, but also mentions the figurative “Pandora’s Box” of utilizing this form of technology (Hans). She argues that once begun, humanity may not be able to halt its progress in implementing robotics into every stage of life. This complete overhaul of the traditional workplace could ultimately result in a society where no one has to work, and machines run everything in a technological singularity form. While it is most likely not possible within our lifetime, this so-called Utopian society could be a result of the overuse of technology in society and the workplace. While this is a worst-case scenario (or a best-case depending on how one looks at it), many scientists believe that it is entirely possible. This raises more questions concerning the morality of proceeding with complete automation and offers a unique look into the future capabilities of the human race. In the quote at the beginning of the article, Einstein made the argument that technology has advanced to the point where man forsakes his humanity for the progress of technology. While it is true that the automation of industries has become more prevalent, could it be that people are looking too far into the data? In other words, could it be that scientists are concentrating too much on the negatives rather than looking at the benefits of using technology?

As I dove deeper into research I discovered an article that argues directly with the view of Brynjolfsson and McAfee, in which the author contradicts what the professors say is the cause for the disparity in productivity and employment rates. As Robert D. Atkinson, the author of Stop Saying Robots Are Destroying Jobs—They Aren’t states, “The reason why job growth slowed after 2000 was largely demographic”. “The number of adults in the workforce … grew 18 percent in the 80s, 13 percent in the 90s but just 8 percent in the 2000s as Baby Boomers got older and women’s entrance into the workforce peaked” (Atkinson). He goes on to claim that Brynjolffson and McAfee neglect to consider the “second order effect” that succeeds the use of

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automating services. This effect, as Atkinson claims, is a natural economic process that follows automated services, in which money is saved, put back into the economy, and used to increase wages, which in turn stimulates the hiring of more employees by competing companies. This argument partly discredits what I originally believed was an undeniable fact, that the increase in automation was pushing out the human workers striving to compete, and goes on to convince me that the state of this debate isn’t as simple as it appears on television. As I focused on the morality of the situation, I chose to delve into technology’s influence on the availability of jobs for college graduates, an increasingly frightening prospect for students who are finding themselves in great debt and with no way to pay it off. It’s a frustrating and disheartening state when a student studies for countless hours in school and spends thousands of dollars in order to achieve an education that should help them get a job, but ultimately fails to do so. What I wanted to find out was how the recent trend in automation has affected these college graduate’s job prospects and what was being done to improve their situations, but what I found was quite startling. According to, a technology website devoted to bringing in news in all fields of science and history, it’s not just minimum wage earners and factory workers that are at risk of job loss due to automation. In the article “Think Your Job is Robot-Proof?Think Again”, author Marc Lallanilla details how some software programs are being engineered to think better and faster than a human brain (Lallanilla). As I mentioned before, this technological singularity, raises itself as a huge concern for the modern world where efficiency and cost effectiveness are constant battles for businesses and companies. If technology were to advance this far, countries such as the United States, where the current unemployment rate has arrived at just over 9.1 percent, could face dramatic job loss and unemployment. While many skeptics find it hard to believe that such a thing could happen, the signs of change are already

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occurring. Miraculously today some programs are being designed so that even writing advanced columns and articles can be fully automated, such as Narrative Science’s software program. This program takes statistics and financial data and applies it so that it can create an entire article to a significant result. While the future seems bleak from this, the article goes on to say that all is not hopeless. "The automation revolution is definitely happening. There is simply no way to stop it,” says Raul Ordonez the director of the University of Dayton's Motoman Robotics Laboratory. "I think it will bring with it some pain in the sense that it will require all of us to adapt to it"(Lallanilla).

While automation has the potential to replace many human jobs, similar to how automated voice machines have cut out the need for outsourcing calls to India, many machines may not be able to replace every occupation. Atkinson believes that it is too difficult to automate some physical tasks like nursing, or fighting fires, and in the process of automating some normal blue collar jobs, the skills that used to be required to run them are fractured and out of date, rendering many men and women who had dedicated their lives to a profession essentially useless. The growing fear amongst many young graduates that the recent innovations in artificial intelligence have the ability to encroach upon many white collar jobs in addition to blue collar ones has become increasingly more common. In “Automation in Industry: Bleaching the Blue Collar”, Harley Shaiken states that in the process of increasing productivity, managers relinquish the satisfaction and pride in the lives of workers and in some cases, this change from human variable to an automated one “throttles rather than expands productivity” (Shaiken). What’s starling about this assumption is that it was made back in 1984, almost 30 years ago. This emphasizes how the signs for such a change have been around for many years, yet have been overlooked or brushed aside.

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While the majority of my exploration into this argument has focused on technology’s effect on the job landscape, it occurred to me during research that this might not be the case. In an article on, Paul Wallis argues that technology isn’t wholly to blame for the drop in employment. Instead he believes that it has more to do with how businesses are run and where budget cuts occur within those organizations. “Businesses blame wage costs for cutting jobs, when they never cut any other expenses” says Wallis. The excess costs-Payroll costs, administration costs, building costs, super/401k- all of which are byproducts of hiring new employees for white collar jobs, are usually what gets put up on the chopping block first. Wallis is quick to point out that yesterday’s white collar jobs are “caveman roles” in that they are no longer needed or applicable to today’s industry. This is where he believes technology has changed, and the need for a refocus on human white collar jobs needs to be implemented. Because of the ever changing climate of the technological business world, Wallis believes that humans need to begin shifting from the white collar jobs of today to more overseer roles where they have less of a hand in the actual work, and more of an active role in the planning and implementing of processes. Think of a manager of a factory floor where the majority of the work is done by machines. The manager is responsible for ensuring that the machines don’t malfunction, but other than that he just watches over them. Now imagine the same scenario, but with machines in the medical field, or the engineering field. With that in mind it’s a bit more of a frightening prospect.

Despite the disagreement amongst professionals what started out as a look into the extent of automation into the manufacturing industry has resulted in a far deeper discussion concerning morality and economic gain. While it may be impossible to predict just how technology will change the job prospects of the future, I am sure that it has just as great a potential to improve the

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state of the world as it does to change it, yet it all comes down to what Richard Florida mentioned in his article Robots Aren’t the Problem: It’s Us. Humanity has the sole power to determine the loss or gain of jobs in the future. What we do in the next decade could be the difference between impossibility and possibility. What we do in the next decade could be the difference between average life, and a Utopia.

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Works Cited
Atkinson, Robert D. "Stop Saying Robots Are Destroying Jobs—They Aren’t." MIT Technology Review. MIT Review, 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Carol Miller. “Seventy-four Percent of Manufacturing and Distribution Professionals Are considering Automation for Their Operations. Ed. MHI, 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Florida, Richard. "The Chronicle Review." The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicler of Higher Education, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Hans, Joel. "Manufacturing . Net." Manufacturing . Net. Advantage Business Media, 20 Feb. 13. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Lallanilla, Marc. "Think Your Job Is Robot-Proof? Think Again." N.p., 05 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Rotman, David. "How Technology Is Destroying Jobs." MIT Technology Review. MIT Review, 12 June 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Shaiken, Harley. "Automation in Industry: Bleaching the Blue Collar." IEEE Xplore. IEEE, June 1984. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

Spence, Michael. "Main Navigation." Project Syndicate RSS. Project Syndicate, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Wallis, Paul. "Op-Ed: The End of White Collar Jobs, Consumerization and Slow Thinking." Op-Ed: The End of White Collar Jobs, Consumerization and Slow Thinking . Digital Journal, 8 Feb. 2013. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.