Answer by Bonnie Foley-Wong, CEO of Pique Ventures:
Thinking about the friends and acquaintances of mine that have worked in jobs requiring little or no experience, the types of jobs included mailroom, postal delivery or related jobs, cashier, construction, and driving taxis. My father immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong with a college education, but without enough recognizable qualifications and found stable employment fixing the machines that processed mail. I met a 3-D designer in Calgary, who had just lost his job as a result of oil prices collapsing and oil industry layoffs last year. He was driving a taxi to continue to provide for his family.
I know people who got jobs in banks decades ago as entry-level tellers. My mother, who similarly to my father, immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s with a college education, got her first job in Canada as a bank teller. She returned to work in a bank in the late 1980s after taking a long break to raise her children, thanks to skills re-training programs. She managed to find a job as a back-office clerk in the foreign exchange department until she was forced into early retirement due to automation of her job.
To people with qualifications and choices of employment, these roles may appear to be repetitive and a waste of a person's mind and talents. There may be some truth to that. But sometimes they were also the difference between a job right away or months of rejections, the difference between poor and getting by, the difference between making rent and not. As more and more of these types of jobs are replaced by machines and automated, an unseen part of the social safety net disappears and is either difficult to replace or our economies and societies have not been quick enough to replace them.
There are pros and cons for individual actors involved in automation of delivery services. The overall impact on society and the economy depends upon other factors.
If jobs are automated with all other things remaining equal, it's likely to have a negative impact on the US economy as a whole because one small, but resource-rich segment of the population will prosper and a larger, resource-scarce segment will suffer. That kind of imbalance, in the long-run, is not good for societies and economies.
We cannot deny that the pursuit of technological innovation is not happening and will not continue to happen. Is automation necessary? No, it's a choice. Is it better? Again, no, it's a choice about how we spend our time. On a very basic level, with my toddler, I notice the difference. Automation means plant her in front of the TV. It occupies her for hours on end and she looks like a zombie. The non-automated option is reading with her, building things together, running around outside together, dancing and making up songs together. Is it repetitive and mind-numbing? No, but it is hard staying a step head of her creatively. Is it rewarding? You bet it is. I digress, but it does show the benefit of looking at automation and technology from another perspective. Automation is not automatically good or better.
So what are the potential positive and negative effects of automating delivery?
- Automation has positive effects for shareholders and senior management of companies that implement it as an efficiency and cost-saving strategy. Senior management gets rewarded through their compensation. Shareholders are rewarded through returns on investment. Both get disproportionate shares of the savings.
- Customers may receive their deliveries more quickly or reliably. I think customers are unlikely to see cost savings (they might see prices maintained and eventually prices creep up).
- Delivery people lose their jobs and those remaining in their jobs (such as in related jobs) are unlikely see their salaries and wages increased as a result of automation and cost-savings.
- The people displaced from delivery jobs have less to spend and save. They may draw on social security in the interim period after their jobs disappear which puts pressure on economies and governments to create other employment opportunities. If there are skills re-training opportunities, someone has to pay for them. Broadly speaking, re-training is funded from someone's own savings (i.e. past earnings), by the government (i.e. taxes or other sources of revenue - redistribution of earnings across the nation), philanthropy (i.e. redistribution of earnings from wealthy people or corporations), or through borrowing and loans (i.e. from future earnings). The impact on the economy is less spending and redistribution of earnings from somewhere.
- Like certain environmental issues, I see most companies implementing automation seeing job displacement as being someone else's problem and do not spend nor invest any money to fund the education, training, or support require to help people through the change.
- There are increasingly fewer entry-level jobs where no experience is required, thereby placing greater pressure on education and skills re-training programs to adequately equip people for employment. Education and skills re-training programs are currently not adequately keeping up with the change in technology and mix of types of employment available to people, but we can change that.
There is no right or wrong with automation. By now, we are certainly no strangers to automation. It is an individual choice that we make to create it or adopt it for ourselves and it is a collective choice that we make to adopt it widely and make it a norm in society. Being sensitive and attentive to the potential negative impact of automation on people around us and then doing something about it, helps ensure that automation is overall a positive development for societies and economies. Thinking not only about ourselves, but also about the interests of others and the environment around us is a very human quality. It's something that we shouldn't forget and shouldn't let others tell us otherwise.
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