Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Should we do something simply because we can? 2: Automation and its discontents 1

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on February 5, 2014

This is my second installment to a series on fundamental change that is starting to take place in the nature of work and of employability, in the face of dramatic and fundamental changes in our capacity to automate and robotize what have traditionally been human-performed jobs (see Part 1: facing an emerging next generation of automation.)

I wrote in Part 1 of contexts and situations where robotic participation, and even in replacement of need for direct on-site human intervention, might make sense and even be essential. And I briefly touched upon three real world scenarios where that would make sense, due to direct and extreme dangers faced and where this type of worker alternative would be most needed. I then went to cite how the drive to automate, and to replace direct human participation with robotic systems is being carried out in what have been more standard workplace environments and contexts too, with the erosion of workplace and career path options and opportunities. And in this context I cited an earlier, related series: Some Thoughts on the Emerging Workplace and Employability Great Restructuring (see its Part 1 and Part 2.)

• Work that is repetitious and that can be specified for its steps and processes in a clearly stated algorithm, is by definition subject to being eliminated as the basis for direct hands-on human employment from its becoming automated.
• And with the steady and rapid development of progressively more flexible and complex algorithms and with the development of more capable artificial intelligence (AI) systems, the range of activities that can cost-effectively be automated can and will only continue to expand.

And this brings me up to the starting point for this posting, and consideration of the human impact of automation, and of the growing capacity for businesses to achieve work level and performance goals with fewer and fewer employees. And I begin addressing that here by noting a long-standing and even traditional workplace and job force dynamic:

• Traditionally, when there are more jobs to be filled than there are suitable job candidates seeking employment, and particularly in high-need and high skill level requiring fields, prospective employees are empowered and gain leverage from this in selecting jobs that they will take, and in negotiating compensation and terms of employment.
• When there are more suitable job candidates than positions available for them, on the other hand, this empowers prospective employers as they select candidates to hire and as they negotiate compensation and terms of employment in a context that is now shifted more in their favor.
• And in general, the dynamics of this have led to an ongoing middle ground for most businesses and for most job types, and for most job seekers and employment candidates, where the ranges of terms offered on the hiring business side and requested on the job candidate’s side are basically acceptable to both. Then negotiations are largely a matter of fine tuning the details where it is likely from the beginning that mutually agreeable terms are possible and even likely.

The pressure of automation with its promises of cost-effectiveness in reducing operating expenses through reduction of personnel costs, skews this balance. This creates a new workplace dynamic in which the balance of power in employee hiring, and I add employee retention decisions shift dramatically in favor of the employer.

The recently concluded Great Recession that began in force in late 2007 will be viewed as a fundamental historical turning point event, in redefining what employment and employability even mean as terms. Businesses recovered to their full pre-recession levels of productivity and profitability very quickly after this recession and even as it was still just ending, but even years later – now in the early days of 2014 and all but certainly through any immediately foreseeable future, this has been in large part a jobless recovery with fewer employees needed, and fewer hired in making those business recoveries possible and with overall unemployment rates remaining high. And in our current employment environment large swaths of the longer term unemployed have been deemed by prospective employers to be unemployable.

I have written about this in terms of job seekers and the hiring process and from early in the first directory page entries to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development. In that regard and simply as a case in point I cite here my series: Finding Your Best Practices Plan B When Your Job Search Isn’t Working (listed there as postings 56-72.) I note here that I have come to suggest that series’ methodology and approach as my basic Plan A initial job search strategy and practice reference, as well as recommending it as a Plan B approach per se, and because of the changing workplace and employability dynamics that I write of here.

But the issues I write of here apply just as strongly to understanding the dynamics of the workplace and the employability and career development and management situations of people who have jobs and who seek to remain employed. When workplace and employability forces shift for all intent and purpose entirely in one direction, and either into employee hands or employer hands, this can only create long-term instabilities and problems for all and on both sides. Here, we are seeing the beginning of such a shift that is largely taking place in favor of the employer.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will complicate it with the seemingly contradictory experience of today’s Ireland with their shortage of skilled labor for certain critically needed job specializations. And in anticipation of that, I note that the overall phenomena that I write of here and the historic shifts that I write of here cannot be contained in any simple stereotypical representations or explanations. There are nuances and complexities and I will begin to add them into this discussion next. Then after more fully discussing this human side to automation and its impact, I will turn back to more fully consider this wave of automation itself and what it entails. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide.

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