Automatic or the people | Essay
Automation is already here: What is our responsibility to the people and communities left behind?
Processes like car manufacturing are already automated and becoming more so all the time. The practice is safer and more efficient, but requires fewer workers. The author asks: “What is our responsibility to places devastated by deindustrialization and automation?” Photo of a Ford plant, by Getty Images.
Somewhere on the Iron Range a railroad engineer noses an 85-car train under the load-out chute at a taconite plant. One by one, each car fills with almost 100 tons of iron ore. The contents of this train will be worth several hundred thousand dollars to the company. If all goes well, and it usually does, the whole process remains efficient and safe. All workers sit at control panels facing no danger at all.
All one of them.
It takes one person to load a taconite train. Sure, there are other personnel involved. Someone has to run the train. Technicians stand by to help if something breaks. But one person with one finger on one button does the bulk of the loading.
Think of the amazing accomplishment this represents. In the annals of North American mining, untold legions of miners died loading trains. Sometimes the ore crushed them. Sometimes the cars shifted on the tracks, squashing workers between them. Unforgiving wheels and rails amputated limbs, forever disabling the lucky and bleeding out the rest.
Automated loading chutes save lives. How many of today’s Iron Rangers exist because their parents or grandparents weren’t killed in an accident? Conservatively, I’d say thousands. I’m one of them.
And then think of the profits. Granted, the person loading the trains today makes more than an immigrant miner could have dreamed of earning in 1922. Average wages for a Minnesota iron miner approach $70,000, with much higher amounts possible with overtime. Experienced workers easily top six figures. Indeed, that person makes as much or more than management did a century ago. But the cost is well worth it to the company. Several dozen low paid laborers once earned smaller salaries that nevertheless, in total, far exceeded what the load-out technician gets now.
Meantime, today’s worker will not be killed on the job, will retain his or her training, and has good incentive to serve the mine for decades, not just a year or two. With the push of one button one time this worker pays their own salary. Every button push after that is pure, rich gravy.
It would be wrong to say that automation is coming to the American workforce. It’s already here. Automation — better than any partisan political talking point — more neatly explains economic conditions in places like the Iron Range, Cleveland, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. On one hand, the devastation is enormous. On the other, the miracle of the remaining good, safe, well-paying jobs leave companies and whole industries impervious to local criticism.
This paradox represents the sum challenge of our future economy. The matter requires attention no matter where you live. Cities like Minneapolis, suburbs like Brooklyn Park, and small towns like Mountain Iron will all overcome this problem or continue to suffer for it.
Because automation no longer limits its toll to industrial jobs.
Last month, the Minnesota-based Target Corporation gained national coverage for raising wages in several markets. In some parts of the United States, Target workers will now earn $24 an hour, a major boost in an industry in which average wages run less than $15 an hour.
Companies like Target set their wages based on local employment markets. If you live in a place with lots of jobs and not so many workers, you’ll do better. If you live in a place with few jobs and a lot of people looking for them, you will likely earn less.
So $24 an hour isn’t charity, but rather a blunt assessment of what it will take to keep stores in certain markets open. For almost a year, we’ve watched wages rise amid what some call a “crisis” of people “not wanting to work.” That charged statement is hard to prove, however, as we see jobless claims drop precipitously even as COVID-era wage subsidies end.
In reality, many factors cause today’s employment shortage. Older workers are retiring or scaling back. Teenagers have become over-scheduled, deeply anxious automatons. The working poor have reached a macabre equilibrium in which they can’t afford the rent or child care necessary to continue working service sector jobs.
So wages are going up! (Along with inflation!) But the other thing keeping stores running smoothly is automation. The reason you can beep your own batteries, orange juice, and sparkly tights that say “Juicy” on your way out of Target is also why the person stocking the shelves might earn more money. It just means that there are fewer jobs in total and more flexibility for the company to engage part timers happy with the higher wages.
The tipping point
The number one job title held in most states, including Minnesota, is “truck driver.”
Truck drivers serve as the local hands of the global economy. They bring food to market, goods to stores, and commodities to their buyers. They also make possible every single product of America’s top corporations: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), and Tesla. Sure, those are all tech companies, but all deliver products by truck or the advertising of clients who do.
Truck drivers always have work, if they want it; they just get squeezed on wages and profits. That’s the market reality of the profession. And soon that squeeze may become fatal to the most common jobs in the United States.
A transportation company called TuSimple has been experimenting with driverless tractor-trailer rigs on American highways for more than a year. One initial experiment showed the driverless trucks successfully operating on a 950-mile trip with a human driver as a backup. Then, months later, the company ran an 80-mile trip with no human on board at all.
In a world where many big warehouses and retail stores can be outfitted with standardized loading ports and software, it’s not hard to see certain kinds of trucking routes taken over by technology. There are challenges, yes, but we’ve reached the “when, not if” portion of the debate.
These systems will eventually be safe and efficient. More profitable than ever. And there will be humans in a room somewhere moving trucks on a video screen. Just not as many of them. And they’ll need to know computers as well as today’s truckers know diesel engines and where the smokies park.
Yes, companies in all sectors are exploring more automation. They will soon deploy this new technology. But the truth, and the problem, of our current working lives is that we are already automated even when human beings do the work.
I’m writing this from home on a freelance contract. My day job awaits in another tab. My son makes sandwiches at Subway and grimly observes the quiet hell of the GrubHub delivery driver, tethered to the alerts on their phone.
Thus, we need to answer several important questions right now.
Where is the human work and what does it entail?
How can we locate that work in places that need jobs?
What is our responsibility to places devastated by deindustrialization and automation?
As our heavy industrial and retail jobs become more specialized (better paid) but automated (fewer people), how do we design our communities to change with this inescapable fact?
And then, finally and most vexingly, what do we do for all the people left behind?
The future is already here. We can stamp our feet over lost ways of life and wistful memories of times when advanced training, higher level thinking, and entrepreneurship weren’t necessary to sustain a good life in my native Iron Range or places like it. Go ahead. Take a year. Or two. Or ten. Automation is here and it will eat your nostalgia like a plate of mozzarella sticks right before it eats you.
If we want the lowest prices and greatest conveniences, no matter what, we become active participants in an automated economy. If we want total efficiency and safety in the American workplace, society will pay for the privilege.
Who, then, really deserves the profits? What, then, are we worth?
I find myself contemplating the shovel in my garage and what I might do with it. I honestly don’t know. Not yet.
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