Looking at history to see the future of manufacturing jobs

It’s no secret that automation technologies like robots have eliminated the need for humans to perform dirty, dangerous, or repetitive tasks in factories. But as the dirty and dangerous jobs are being taken up by robots, there are questions about whether the continued inclusion of robotics and automation technologies will replace even the high skilled jobs in manufacturing.

Over at The Switch blog from the Washington Post, James Bessen takes a look at this from a historical point of view in his article, Will robots steal our jobs? The humble loom suggests not.:

Marx observed this automation and predicted that it would result in mass unemployment. But that’s not what happened. In fact, by the end of the century, there were four times as many factory weavers as in 1830. What Marx missed was that the new technology also increased demand. The greater output per weaver reduced the price of cloth. Consumers reacted by buying more cloth. Greater demand for cloth meant more jobs for weavers despite the automation.

While the idea that robots will replace workers conjures fear and headlines that grab people’s attention, it doesn’t tell the whole story about automation and what this means for labor.

In a traditional hand loom, a long set of threads is stretched lengthwise and alternate sets of threads are raised or lowered. The weaver propels a shuttle carrying another thread across the loom, through the opening created by the raised threads, and then lowers the raised threads so they lock the alternate thread into the cloth.

The power loom automated these basic steps, but weavers still needed to perform tasks such as filling the shuttle when it ran out of yarn, monitoring the cloth for defects and fixing breaks in threads. This partial automation meant that a single weaver could tend two looms, increasing the output per worker.

For example, it takes fewer bank tellers to operate a bank branch, thanks to the ATMs. This makes it less costly to operate a bank branch, allowing banks to open more of them. With more branches, banks can expand their markets. But more branches mean greater demand for tellers, offsetting the loss in the number of tellers per branch. Bank tellers today perform different tasks than in the past – they do fewer simple jobs like counting cash and more of the customer interaction of “relationship banking.” These tasks require different skills, but ATMs have not eliminated teller jobs.

There is no way to tell what the future holds for manufacturing jobs as we continue to add and update automation technology in factories. One thing we do know is that while certain positions may be replaced with technology, there will still be a need for a skilled workforce to continue working and new positions being developed as these changes take place. By looking at the past, we can see what is likely to come in the future.

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