Alan's Blog




Robots and their Cost to Humans

When I was a mere lad in junior school our teacher explained to us that we would probably never have to go out to work as 'robots' would be doing the work whilst we could do spend our lives doing whatever we wanted to do. Rather a utopian dream that will never come about as we now know. Of course, as a little lad it seemed a great idea to me as work wasn't exactly at the top of my agenda in those days. What our teacher neglected to tell us was that if we didn't work we wouldn't receive any money with which to do whatever it was that we wanted to do with all that leisure time. Of course, we all know lazy scroungers who have spent much of their lives milking the welfare system for all they can get but those folks are very much in the minority. They may have plenty of leisure time but I'm sure they don't usually have enough money to really enjoy themselves as fully as many of them would wish. In my experience, one either has plenty of time and no money, or, plenty of money and no time to enjoy it!

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 robots, although they are pretty much the same thing in the context about which I'm writing.

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. The work in automating water pumping stations continued during the more than six years I was there and for long after I'd left the company.

Nowadays we have whole production lines and entire systems 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 manufacturing and production equipment were called in and 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 automated machines”.

What must always be considered is not only the financial cost of an automated factory, but the social cost, which can be even greater. A massive financial investment in hi-tech machinery, highly skilled, highly paid technicians to keep it running efficiently (and few other workers), very expensive spare parts which may be impossible to obtain once the equipment becomes obsolete after a few years (deliberately) - the list goes on. Compare that to a factory that employs thousands of people using cheap, easy to fix machinery or tools with little in the way of obsolesence - and all those workers paying their taxes and not needing state or welfare support. One also needs to consider that there isn't much point in building a hi-tech factory that can produce millions of TVs / washing machines / cars or whatever else one can think of, if no one can afford to buy these products - especially local people.

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, especially in manufacturing. Almost nothing left of what was once our national heritage – engineering and heavy engineering manufacturing.

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, there are downsides - one being that for lots of these roles people need to travel, or even relocate, another downside is that the jobs of today do not require the skills of yesterday - new skills are required, so these jobs aren't a lot of use to the older people who have been kicked out of work by robots. So, 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 and unless you have up-to-date skills there won't be many jobs available at all - if any. Getting retrained, or working for a higher level qualification is sometimes an option but not always practicable for older people. For example, I was thinking of reading for a Master's Degree at Manchester University but at my age the high cost of course fees wouldn't have made this cost effective as I'd never have recouped my money by obtaining a higher salary unless I'd worked until I was about 100 years of age. In fact, it could possibly have gone against me as some managers might have looked on me as being over-qualified and therefore a threat to their position. A no-win situation.

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 in 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 1992 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 some progress.

As my late mother used to say "There's always work for those who want to work".

I just wonder how much longer that will continue to be the case!

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