Automation Job Loss Also Occurs in Offices
January 12, 2019, 08:48 PM
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Here’s an interesting take on automation-caused employment reduction in the office environment: not every job-killing change comes from a mandate sent down by corporate headquarters; sometimes a simple procedural adjustment suggested by a worker or an improvement to more efficient software can result with a co-worker’s job made obsolete.

This story is a reminder that not only does America not need uneducated Hondurans as workers in the future automation economy, but even educated and skilled people may increasingly become unemployable.

So You Automated Your Coworkers Out of a Job, By Brian Merchant, Gizmodo, January 9, 2019

During his first day on the job at a small 3D-modelling company, Griffith noticed that his new colleagues’ workstations were hopelessly out of date. So he took the initiative to suggest some automation upgrades to the higher-ups, who concurred. Two years later, 20 employees—some of them good friends—were out of work.

“I feel bad because I knew these people well,” Griffith, which is not his real name, tells me. He says feels responsible because he kicked off the project, and after it was underway, he quickly realized they’d lose their jobs. “But I was powerless to stop it.”

Automation is too often presented as a faceless, monolithic phenomenon—but it’s a human finger that ultimately pulls the trigger. Someone has to initiate the process that automates a task or mechanizes a production line. To write or procure the program that makes a department or a job redundant. And that’s not always an executive, or upper-, or even middle management—in fact, it’s very often not. Sometimes it’s a junior employee, or a developer, even an intern.

Inside many companies, automation doesn’t simply unfold as a top-down imperative. It can stem from random efficiency experiments or pilot programs initiated by employees who don’t always intend for their ideas to cascade into large-scale job loss. In some cases, management will ask a junior staff to spearhead an automation initiative (perhaps, some speculate, to help redirect blame for the job-eliminating policies). When either happens, it can lead to long-term guilt, confusion, and regret on the part of the automator—few people want to delete their friends’ or colleagues’ jobs—and embitterment and anger on the part of the automated.

In a series of interviews with coders, technicians, and engineers who’ve automated their colleagues out of work—or, in one case, been put in a position where they’d have to do so and decided to quit instead—I’ve attempted to produce a snapshot of life on the messy front lines of modern automation. (Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the automators.) We’ve heard plenty of forecasting about the many jobs slated to be erased, and we’ve seen the impacts on the communities that have lost livelihoods at the hands of automation, but we haven’t had many close up looks at how all this unfolds in the office or the factory floor.

So, I was hoping to examine the politics of automation within today’s workplaces, and how the phenomenon unfolds in smaller businesses and in circumstances beyond corporate fiat. To take stock of the personal impacts this strain of automation might unleash. Some automators carry regret and guilt for years; others say they’re only automating bad jobs, or are doing work assigned to them—and expected of them—by management.

So how does automation roll through a workplace in real-time? Who suffers the consequences, and who lives with the responsibility? Sometimes, those who are left feeling guiltiest are the ones made to pull the trigger—enterprising junior employees or staffers with innovative ideas—who see their colleagues get the ax, usually without even seeing any of the profit gains or material benefits the company subsequently enjoys.

Erin Winick was a sophomore mechanical engineering student when she took a summer internship at a southern California tech company. She was enthusiastic about 3D printing, so a manager there soon asked her to use the technology to streamline an older mold-making process. That meant studying up with the man then in charge of the process, whom I”ll call Gary. It soon dawned on both of them that if her project succeeded, Gary would be out of a job.

“I remember explicitly feeling my heart beat faster when we had the initial conversation,” Winick tells me in an email. “It was some nervousness and some guilt for sure. When I first got the project I didn’t realize what it would involve.” Winick would later write about the experience for MIT Technology Review, where she’s now an associate editor: “As he described the process and his role in it, I realized that making molds was Gary’s sole responsibility. He had spent over 30 years perfecting these tools and parts.” This was his life’s work.

At first, Gary was friendly, eager to show a new hand the ropes. After he realized what was happening—well, less so. “Each time we spoke, I was closer to making a working product—and more nervous about telling him how things were going,” Winick writes. “I felt that by doing so, I was letting him know how close he was to losing his job.” But the project moved ahead, and the company said it would retrain Gary to work on the new printers. It turned out he wasn’t much interested in learning a new job three decades into his career, however, and took the news as the latest in a long line of slights from management. “More of the feeling of guilt came about over the summer,” Winick tells me, “as I saw he was unhappy and didn’t want to work in another role.”

[. . .]

In perhaps the most cited study on the topic, researchers found that 47 percent of American jobs are still susceptible to automation. A more recent one estimated 800 million jobs worldwide will be wiped away. So there’s a fairly pressing imperative to understand how automation is instigated, how it flows through departments, how it’s coped with by employees—and even how it can be mitigated or better harnessed to yield more equitable returns. (Continues)

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