Automating wood manufacturing equipment has met with resistance by workers fearful they would lose jobs, and even some managers, who felt they'd lose the ability to apply craftsmanship to production.
That resistance may be starting to fade. And new research documents what suppliers have been advising for years: computerization actually increases employment.
Computers are not “stealing” jobs. Instead, occupations that use computers are growing
Studying historic occupational data, a Boston University professor, James Bessen, found that automating processes through computers actually increases employment - and relatively quickly. Bessen cites some examples that are clearly visible: despite automating retail check-out with barcode scanners, the number of cashiers has actually increased. Because ATM machines reduce labor, banks opened more branches with a net increase of employment for bank tellers.
Bessen says in a summary of his paper:
Automation has become a concern not just for blue-collar manufacturing workers, but also for white-collar workers and even professionals. New computer programs, some using artificial intelligence, are taking over tasks of bookkeepers, bank tellers, clerks, and others. Some people see this replacement causing technological unemployment. In their view, because people are losing jobs to machines, unemployment has risen and this is a major reason that the recovery from the Great Recession is so slow. Other people see the unemployment mainly affecting mid-wage jobs such as those performing routine clerical tasks; these people see the impact as “the hollowing out of the middle class.”
This paper conducts the first study to look at the effect of computer automation on a comprehensive set of detailed occupations from 1980 through 2013. Specifically, it investigates the effect of computer use on employment growth and other changes within 317 occupations in 241 industries. While the focus of the paper is on automation, it is important to note that computer technology can affect work in other ways as well. For instance, digital technologies might facilitate offshoring by reducing communication and transportation costs. . .
The study finds that computers are transforming work, but not by reducing total employment. Computers are not “stealing” jobs. Instead, occupations that use computers are growing, sometimes at the expense of other occupations. But this means workers need to learn new skills or even to switch occupations.
Although computer automation does not appear to be causing a net loss of jobs, it does imply a substantial displacement of jobs from some occupations to others. Moreover, the burden of displacement falls disproportionately on workers in low wage occupations, mainly because low wage occupations use computers much less than high wage occupations do. That is, computer automation helps high wage occupations take over work from low wage occupations. The net effect implies a substantial dislocation of work to higher wage occupations.