Alan's Blog




Robots and their Cost to Humans

In 1965 I left school to become an apprentice with the local water supply company. At that time one of the big ongoing projects was automation – the forerunner of robotics.

One of these automation projects had been completed before I joined the company. This involved automating six pumping stations. Each of these had been fully manned prior to automation, now there was just one man whose job it was to visit each site twice a day to check all was well. Consider the human cost – each pumping station, fully manned, three shifts per day, seven days per week – all those men out of work – many families with no income.

Nowadays we have whole production lines operating with hardly any human input.

This is called ‘progress’. Really?

I well remember reading an account about the president of an African state who wanted a factory built. Many manufacturers of production equipment were called in an all of them said much the same thing: “We can build you a factory that you can run with only a handful of people”. His reply was along the lines of: “That’s no good to me. I’ve got millions of people who need jobs. I need a factory that will employ thousands of people – not machines”.

The engineering works where I was employed in more recent times used to provide work for thousands of people. Now there is hardly anyone left. The same can be said for almost all our industries. Almost nothing left of what was once our national heritage – engineering.

The big question I always ask is “Where have all those millions of formerly employed people gone?”  They can’t all have retired or died, surely. They can’t all be on welfare benefits any more than they can be stacking shelves in the supermarkets.

The other strange fact is that there are still vacancies needing to be filled in all sorts of roles in a wide range of companies. I get e-mails every day about jobs. Of course, the main downside for lots of these roles is that people need to travel, or even relocate, but at least there seems to be work available. However, the days of finding work, as one used to, nearby your front door are, in the main, long gone.

Is relocation a big deal? It certainly can be for some people with a family, but we’ve done it many times in my search for work – even going to other countries. I well remember having spent 6 months looking for work anywhere in the UK without success. I then got some information that there were jobs available in Qatar so I spent some hours searching the internet and applied for two positions. Within a few days we were on the ‘plane to Qatar where we spent three happy years - and which was great for my career too.

Returning to our main topic, robots and society, what I’m getting at in many ways is that with the decline of jobs requiring our skills, particularly engineering, the only way we can find work is to go to where there is work, as the work won’t come to us! We also need to think much more internationally when it comes to job-seeking.

People from other countries grasped this concept many years ago, mainly because of poverty levels in their own countries. This was brought home to me when, in 1993 or thereabouts, I was in Dubai touring the job agencies looking for work. One of the recruiters told me that it was much harder for British people to find work there than it had been formerly because companies could employ three Indian people for the same cost as one British person – we were too expensive.

When I did eventually get a job in the Middle East, I certainly found that to be true as there were huge numbers of Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other nationalities working there – and a few British and other western nations personnel. Many of these non-western people worked in very low-level jobs, but that was far from all of them as many were in quite senior positions. The majority of senior staff were westerners.

Yes, despite the robots, there are jobs available – but you may need to look far afield to find one – but at least we now have the internet to help us and that is progress.