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I work in a small manufacturing company on special projects that automate some processes (primarily design/drafting). This automation is mainly targeted at reducing errors, establishing standards, and cutting costs on certain orders so that we can reduce price and become more competitive.

Now a problem I often face is that when I explain what I'm doing to some coworkers, some of them get a bit abrasive and accuse me of trying to put people out of work. Now I think I get their perspective, but from my point of view, the more successfully automated we become, the more orders the company can bring in and therefore it should offset whatever "lost labor" there might be. Not to mention, I'm well aware that due to the nature of my industry, no job could be entirely automatic; my intention is to enhance, not replace.

I really don't know a good way to react when people have this point of view. Really I'm quite proud of what I do and my work, so I get more than a little irritated; I'd say I feel like I'm being vilified. What would be an appropriate and professional way to respond?

26 Answers 26

201

I faced this same problem for many years.

You have to constantly reinforce that you're "Increasing our capacity." Then if pressed, explain that the human component is the most valuable part, and that the company is currently wasting that value by assigning humans to repetitive tasks. Emphasize that if the company can increase capacity, then there will be more revenue and thus more budget for salary.

And, of course, middle and upper management are going to have to reinforce that message.

But the sad truth is also out there: There are staff who have no real skills, and they make a living by doing things that can be automated. You are a threat to them.

98

I'm sorry, there's no getting around the fact that you are putting people out of work.

This is what automation does -- and if you increase capacity, those extra profits go into the pockets of the business owners, not the workers -- especially not the workers who have been laid off.

When I started my career as a computer programmer, we were automating jobs like bookkeeper/accountant and order taker/shipping clerk. Now more cerebral jobs, like design/drafting, are being automated.

But this is inevitable. Automation has reached the point where lower-level jobs are being eliminated faster than higher-level jobs are being created. Maybe the solution is a "George Jetson"-style economy where people work three days a week, five hours a day, just pushing buttons. Or everybody works for 10 or 15 years and then retires early. Or everybody gets a guaranteed basic income, and only those who want more need to work. I just don't know.

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    Tax the robots. – A. I. Breveleri Aug 29 at 6:52
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    Maybe the solution [...] – Those are indeed solutions, but that assumes that companies which benefit from lower costs due to automation will pass those savings down to consumers. Once manufacturing an item that used to cost $5000 to manufacture and was sold for $7000 is reduced to $500, companies aren't going to sell it for $700, but for the same $7000 (maybe a little less, if they determine that it would increase their profits). The result is that less money is going to the working class, and yet things still cost the same. – forest Aug 29 at 7:20
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    @forest In a market economy - which pretty much all economies are these days - companies compete for both consumers and workers, so depending on the particulars of competition for consumers and workers in an industry, automation leads to lower prices and higher wages. And of course, lower prices for consumers "raise" wages of those consumers, in as much as it increases their buying power. – Grimm The Opiner Aug 29 at 7:34
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    " Automation has reached the point were lower-level jobs are being eliminated faster than higher-level jobs are being created" - that seems doubtful, at least in general. Do you have a citation for that? – sleske Aug 29 at 8:21
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    @GrimmTheOpiner "Shareholders include pension funds and savings accounts, so that's the ordinary working folk" - the poorest 90% of the USA own only ~20% of the overall wealth and ~7% of stocks and shares, so that's not really true. – patstew Aug 29 at 11:40
34

Tell them you are taking the boring stuff away

Yes, automation takes work away from employees. However, in order for task automation to make sense, there are 3 properties the task should have:

  1. The task is very well understood such that either there are no edge cases or that the edge cases are very well understood;
  2. The task is very repetitive, usually being the exact same thing every time;
  3. The task is very common, recurring multiple times per week or even per day.

If 1 or 2 aren't true, automating the task would be a very complicated affair where it might be better to create processes that aid in dealing with edge cases or deviations. If 3 isn't true, it doesn't make sense to automate it because it's unlikely to make up much lost time. Randall Munroe made a chart illustrating this at https://xkcd.com/1205/.

So, since these tasks are simple, frequent and repetitive, these tasks are generally considered to be boring and less important to the business, but they need to happen regardless. Things like reports, monitoring, boilerplate code/design standards are things that are frequently automated. Yes, this is putting people out of work, but it's the boring stuff, and I think your coworkers would rather be working on the actually creative stuff like designing new widgets, rather than fiddle with the template that's created when first starting something.

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    I think this is a great answer. For people who don't understand the nuances it should suffice, and people who do understand the nuances are not likely to make accusitions in the first place. – Dennis Jaheruddin Aug 29 at 10:23
  • The problem remains that the boring stuff takes time. So if you have 10 designers, each taking 10% of their time doing the "boring stuff", you will only need 9 designers to get the same output once the "boring stuff" has been automated. The company will then have the option of getting an 11% increase in productivity or a 10% cut in designer salary cost (by laying off 1 person). If management chooses the latter, the 9 that remain will likely enjoy the automation but their buddy still got laid off. – Alexandre Aubrey Aug 29 at 14:30
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    @AlexandreAubrey this is assuming that there is only 100% of potential work, and that once you cut that 10% boring stuff there's only 90% of the work left. In my experience, there is always a surplus of potential work, and especially billable work. It could be that cutting that 10% boring stuff that's e.g. not easily billable to a specific client could lead to more time being spent on billable work and thus extra income. – Nzall Aug 29 at 20:52
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    The problem with this answer, and it's a big on IME, is there are plenty of people willing to do boring jobs just for the sake of taking home pay. They don't care to do anything difficult, even if it's interesting or has a future. They will even complain about their job being boring and dead end, but still won't do anything to better themselves. Sometimes you have to forcefully take away the crutch, as difficult as that is for both sides. – computercarguy Aug 29 at 21:47
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    @computercarguy boring work has advantages too. It can be meditative for some people and when it's done, it's done. You don't need to worry about anything work-related between 17:01 and 08:59. In comparison, many less boring jobs induce higher stress levels 24/7. – Eric Duminil Aug 30 at 7:45
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If you find yourself in a situation where you have to answer to being a part of "automating jobs out of existence", the best thing you can do is to not try to sugar-coat or side-step the issue. Just tell them honestly what you're doing and ask the workers to bring concerns to their management.

This is really a failure of leadership in the organization and not your fault. Unfortunately, you probably need their cooperation to progress and so it ends up being your problem. If you find yourself unable to get cooperation, it might be time for a sensitive conversation with the leadership in your org.

The management should be providing some assurance to workers about the future of their jobs. The good news is that these kinds of transitions usually take significant time. There are opportunities to mitigate the harshness of the job losses by voluntary separation packages, attrition, re-training, or even just giving advance notice of job termination.

Even if management does nothing, the workers are still getting a gentle notification that their jobs might be gone. Your project is not "secret" or hidden from the workers, they now know that the future is in question. That's going to be hard to accept at first and you won't be able to say much to make them feel better.

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    This. That is a management job. – sleske Aug 29 at 8:28
  • Absolutely. It's not a workers job to explain to other workers, this is a job for management. Likely the OP is automating parts of their own job. I know I did that many time, even when I wasn't officially a developer. Additionally, even when I wasn't a dev, I automated my own job away several times. As far as talking to other employees, I'd go so far as to tell them to only talk to the OPs manager, as that's where the OPs work comes from. They aren't likely making up the work on their own. – computercarguy Aug 29 at 21:42
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Personally, I believe you should stick to the truth, people can sense half-truths very well. So a possible answer would be:

"Yes."

-Short pause-

And then: "Do you know why I am doing this? So that this company is not pushed out of the market by some (here put a region where your international competitors are from) company in 5 years down the road, and so that everybody loses his/her job"

Depending on your outlook you can also add:

"If I do this well, we might even attract more international customers and more people might work in total for this company"

"Of course, it is tough on the people whose jobs are automated and cut. I wish this could be helped, but unfortunately it can't"

No need to sugar coat it.

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    +1. If a company doesn't do everything it can to remain competitive it goes under and everyone loses their jobs. – Alexandre Aubrey Aug 29 at 14:37
  • Unfortunately, this will fall on deaf ears, since most of the people who think are going to be laid off are the ones that refuse to see anything from the business side of things and only see how they "can't" change, even though it's only their decision to not change. – computercarguy Aug 29 at 21:53
  • @computercarguy Its not the (main) point of the answer to talk logic to the people. The strategy is like: if you start with 'yes' nobody can argue about it. Also you are making a stand. Then one is basically saying 'the whole company (apart from you guys) is behind it.' (the other ppl want the company to survive). and ending on 'but it cant be helped' meaning'there is nothing you can do'. I am not expecting a 'sacrifice' from the ppl getting automatized. They will only argue if they feel you are 'weak' (which is signaled if you try to sugar coat your actions) – lalala Aug 30 at 7:35
  • @computercarguy basically if people understand that nothing can be changed (from your side, management side, company side) they usually accept it. – lalala Aug 30 at 7:37
  • @lalala, "they usually accept it", speaking as someone who has spoken to these people before, no they won't. They don't care if you have strength, management, or anything behind you, they want to argue, complain, and otherwise "voice their opinion", especially if they feel management isn't listening to them. They want to think progress is bad because they refuse to do it themselves. They will also tell everyone around them for years to come how evil progress is because they lost their job, ignoring the fact they could have changed and improved themselves & their financial state. – computercarguy Aug 30 at 15:49
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Most of the tools I have developed over the years was to take away manual input and to use technology to store and use data in an easier way. Any of these tools put at least one person out of a job and sometimes many.

The fact is the business already recognized this and asked me to do something. Meaning that one of two things were going to happen.

  1. The business would continue to operate inefficiently, margins go down, workers will be asked to do more in less time, and either the business goes under by competitors that have better processes or it teeters on, and your prospects of a raise or promotion are almost none. Good employees at these businesses understand this and are in constant fear of losing their job, and bad employees can't see the writing on the wall and are shocked when their department is cut in 1/4.

  2. Management will simply hire someone else to do the automation. If they hire the wrong "person" to do this the company will still have poor margins, issues, and possibly cut jobs or go under. If they hire the right "person" to do this then this could save the company a ton of money, making them more profitable, and a good long-term employment opportunity. However, the jobs directly impacted by the automation will expire, and a company that does this well will hire more people for marketing, engineering, management and so forth - higher paying jobs and probably promotions to the people doing the automation.

There is literally nothing good you can say to a person who is doing work manually and you are automating it - when that person doesn't have any aspirations of moving forward in their job or career. The groups I have automated usually went into two boats. The first is the stingy who won't help you automate their job. It takes me maybe an extra couple weeks of programming... Or the group is openly helping out and is saying what's the next thing I can do. I am not saying everyone kept jobs, but good employees that helped, I cannot remember one of them getting laid off. (The automation exercise usually is spotlighted due to "poor-performing" employees in an area. So often the exercise is to rid the company of these employees, not really due to the automation, but due to their performance.)

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    I think it is a poor perspective to argue with competition because finally, all competitors will do the same which is a spiral downwards. Also, not everyone is able to move forward nowadays, especially if they are in their old jobs for a long time. Even if they tried to learn a new skill there will be a lot of younger people doing the same probably faster as competitors which will get chosen. Also there is missing a political view on things: workers need to be paid good so that the economy works well. Workers without power get paid less. This leaves more for the capital side. – Ben Aug 29 at 9:43
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    I think this answer injects too much judgement against the workers. These kinds of transitions take a lot of time (usually months to years). There is time for responsible leadership to mitigate the changes. If they're really attempting to blindside the workers by hiring the OP, and then all of a sudden firing scores of people, things won't go smoothly and it shows a lack of planning on the part of leadership. – teego1967 Aug 29 at 13:54
  • @Ben.... OK. You are missing the point. I am stating conclusions that are likely to happen not placating to emotion to garner votes on this site. – blankip Aug 29 at 15:27
  • Sure. I just wanted to say that "competition" or "the market" (as it was stated in other comments also) are things a society can and has to manage. We are in a transition that will be hard for a lot of people and as a society we have to manage it. So there is no certainty about the things that are "likely to happen". For example the automobile industry employs way more people than are needed because it is a cartel. Same with oil, chemicals and other industries. So, there are other solutions than "competition". Pure competition is nothing you really want to have. – Ben Aug 29 at 17:27
  • @Ben - that is society not an individual business. I understand where you are coming from but the road you go down pits management's emotional relationship to employees vs the health of their business. Sometimes these things can be worked out and planned for, sometimes a business goes under when it does not act fast enough. To blanket statement say that all companies should plan or "help" these employees is saying, please take the risk of going out of business so that unskilled workers can work, while risking the jobs of all others. – blankip Aug 29 at 17:49
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"I'm just doing my job, same as you are."

In terms of a professional response, that's all that's needed. You don't have to justify anything or go into detail. It's unprofessional of them to complain about that, and you're the wrong person to complain to.

When giving a professional response to an unprofessional aggressive question, it's best just to keep it short. Anything else invites discourse and potential argument.

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    "I'm just doing my job" is often a worse response than flat-out refusing to answer. – forest Aug 29 at 7:33
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    While this is certainly true, this would estrange them even more. And generally you can not expect a high level of professionalism from people who fear that they will be replaced by a machine. – Kami Kaze Aug 29 at 7:33
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    I'm not going to disagree with you guys. But pragmatically if your work replaces peoples job, you need to have a thick skin. It's what your paid for, you're not in a popularity contest and you don't have to deal with unprofessionalism, they can complain to management. Many people have been outright sacked because of my work sometimes, it's not me being malicious, just a job. – Kilisi Aug 29 at 8:53
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    While I agree with your answer @Kilisi, which is as always quite professional, I don't think it answers the issue: OP is irritated by these complaints and I think telling them that you are doing your job is unlikely to make them stop (they will think their fear is well-founded) – Pierre Arlaud Aug 29 at 9:08
  • @PierreArlaud perhaps, perhaps not. End of the day 5 minutes thought on their behalf and they'll see the OP is right and they're the ones taking it personally and to the wrong person, not the OP. Nothing the OP can do or say will stop someone from upsetting themselves over it if they want to, instead it just gives them ammo. So the OP might as well just point that out politely and save the effort. It may need more, but for a start just attempt to defuse them. – Kilisi Aug 29 at 13:01
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This is the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy. Many people believe that there is a fixed amount of work to be done and thus your experience. But it isn’t true. See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lump_of_labour_fallacy

Of course, you may eliminate part of your colleagues roles. What happens to their jobs is a question for management. But, given your firm is in competition with other similar firms which presumably could also employ you to automate similar processes your firm won’t be in business for too long if it doesn’t automate. So you can reasonably reply: I’m helping ensure you keep your job.

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    Best answer I've seen here so far. – T.E.D. Aug 29 at 19:00
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The idea that automation destroys jobs with no benefit to anybody is a fallacy of economics that exists only because the people who believe it focus only on the jobs that are eliminated.

In truth, automation reduces the cost of the good or service whose production or provenance is automated.

The savings from the labor cost reduction can go to the pockets of the company owners, or they can be passed on to the customer. This extra cash creates more demand, either for consumer goods (if the extra cash is spent on consumption) or capital goods (if the extra cash is invested). In either case, this increased demand causes jobs to be created.

It is certainly true that the displaced workers will need to be retrained in order to find work again, but it must be remembered that this is only a temporary state of affairs, and that before they were displaced, the increased cost of employing them was causing workers somewhere else to be denied jobs.

The fallacy also rests on the false belief that there is only so much work to be done, but this is not true. There are still plenty of things that somebody wants done; a road here needs widening, I'd like a new deck behind my house, and there is lots and lots of scientific and medical research that needs doing. Freeing up labor in one place makes labor available for these other things.

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    Regarding temporary state of affairs: I don't think thats true for all cases. For some people yes, for some people no. E.g. I don't think your grand-pa will be learning programming skills before he retires. Such people will fall in a big hole, because nobody wants them or they are too expensive. – testing Aug 29 at 10:15
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    The people losing their jobs to the robots won't become doctors or scientists. There are limits to retraining: you can't expect that someone that was automated away be able to compete with young workers out of college/vocational school in the field they were retrained to. And even if they do compete, their standard of living will fall because their career was reset. If they have children that may break their financial backs. – Geronimo Aug 29 at 13:04
  • This is where retraining trickles uphill. By that I mean the people smart/intelligent/desperate/motivated/determined/etc enough to retrain to better jobs will do so to get out of job markets that are overflowing. Also, you grandparents might surprise you with what they can do. I know a couple of 60+ year olds who have been programming for 40-50 years in dozens of languages. Does that mean a welder can become a doctor? No, but that doesn't mean a chain of people can't. – computercarguy Aug 29 at 21:57
  • The fact that a displaced worker cannot find a new job should not be a legal bar to displacing him; it places the burden of supporting him on the employer he happens to have at the moment, rather than making it a general obligation of the society that wants him to be supported. – EvilSnack Aug 31 at 0:09
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Now a problem I often face is that when I explain what I'm doing to some coworkers, some of them get a bit abrasive and accuse me of trying to put people out of work.

So stop telling them. If the subject comes up, explain to them that you're working on some automation without going into specific details.

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    or if the word automation gives a bad image, you could say something like improving processes – さりげない告白 Aug 29 at 3:37
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In your opinions, what would be an appropriate way to respond?

I suggest you try to avoid engaging in conversations of this sort with coworkers that take this the wrong way.

You can try to explain to them just how you did here. Tell them that your job is to enhance, not to replace, and that you are actually making their lives easier so they can be more productive. Perhaps give them some examples of things you've implemented that are currently helping them perform their work.

After that, if some coworker insists on accusing you or taking it the wrong way, then I suggest you stop the discussion and move on (I'm sure you have better, more important things to do).

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As some others have stated, progress will inevitably result in lost jobs. However, I'm a firm believer that the conversation shouldn't be "how do we get those people working again?" but rather, "How do we get to the point where people are valued for more than their work, and therefor people don't have to work?"

If everything were automated, and I mean hyperbolically everything, then human labor itself could become obsolete and there would be no need to work for anyone. Basic human needs could be guaranteed simply by existing, and the only work people would have to do, is voluntary. It is a fallacy of modern capitalism that all people have to work at all.

In the end, your goal of automating work will improve life for all people, and it's difficult for many to broaden their horizons beyond their immediate problems to recognize this utopian goal.

3

Automation can result in savings that get passed down to the working class.

You may be putting people out of work through automation, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For a company that operates ethically, automation will allow manufacturing costs to go down and will allow the final price to go down in lockstep without the company suffering financially. The end-result is that, although less people have work, things cost less, so less money is needed in the first place to live well.

Unfortunately, the reality is that companies will often not behave this way. Imagine an item that costs $5000 to manufacture and is sold for $7000. Automation may reduce the cost of manufacturing to merely $500, but most companies whose sole purpose is to make a profit for shareholders will not reduce the price that consumers pay all the way down to $700. Instead, they'll keep it at or around its initial price. In such a case, less people have jobs, but things still cost the same, and the working class suffers.

If your company behaves ethically and passes on savings to consumers, then you can explain that. If, on the other hand, your company only cares about the bottom line, then you have to face that. So in the end you have to ask: Whose pockets are the savings going into? Explain the answer to your accusers.

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    Re "most companies whose sole purpose is to make a profit for shareholders will not reduce the price": But that is what competition is for. Hopefully it works. – Peter Mortensen Aug 29 at 8:26
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    @PeterMortensen Indeed. I'm not trying to make a statement about capitalism, though. – forest Aug 29 at 8:26
  • But if the concern is these specific workers putting food on their tables, some future amorphous promise that it will help "the working class" isn't a particularly relevant response. The grocery store doesn't accept "class solidarity" as payment for groceries. – T.E.D. Aug 29 at 18:58
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You can also ask people for ideas about ways to improve the business. I've worked for many businesses, and usually the very people most at risk in this kind of situation - manual low level workers, admin staff, sometimes middle managers - are exactly the ones who know whats inefficient or not working, when higher management don't. I've found their insights invaluable.

So instead of a conversation about how people will lose their jobs, have conversations about how the business is taking steps to make sure it can still compete and win work over the next 5 years, so that it can secure all the jobs it can. People aren't stupid, and they understand how it can be, even if they would like it different. People above all hate to feel powerless and at someone else's whim. Be on their side. Ask if people have any ideas at all to be more competitive, or where they could be more efficient, instead, "in case anyone's missed anything".

You'll get their appreciation. More support than you would otherwise (even if grudging). Their engagement. Their understanding that you're trying to help. And very likely you will also get a fistful of ideas and insights that also benefit your company and your role.

1

What would be an appropriate and professional way to respond?

Like so:

Thank you for the flattery, but I don't have that much power. I'm just doing my job, like you. It's tough, but they run this place as a business, not a charity. People are hired to do work the business needs done. If you want them to keep making money when their work isn't required, feel free to give them some of your money. Or, better yet, how about you go talk to management about starting a training program so we can keep good people onboard by giving them different tasks? If you start a petition, send it my way so I can sign it.

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You are enabling people to make more

The main way to higher wages - both in a separate company and in the whole industry - is through higher productivity. The definition of productivity is the value of goods or services produced per employee, and making it possible to achieve the same results with less labor is the thing that makes each employee create more value.

You can and should make a point that if an industry doesn't increase productivity, mostly through automation, then the wages in that industry will be stagnant and fall behind other jobs where productivity does grow year-over-year.

You can and should make a point that if their company doesn't increase productivity, mostly through automation, then other companies (possibly in other countries) will still do so, reducing their costs so that the unproductive unautomated companies become useless and worthless, and they all will lose their jobs.

1

Done properly, automation makes producing your output cheaper. It requires fewer person-hours to produce each unit of output.

This can result in reducing your workforce. But there are a number of ways that it can result in growing your workforce.

When the cost of producing something drops, the change in production costs (assuming consumption stays the same) lets the seller do some combination of dropping prices or increase marginal profit.

When prices drop, often demand increases. This is measured by elasticity of demand; when a 1% reduction in prices results in a X% increase in sales, the elasticity of demand is X. When X is much larger than 1, lowering prices can result in a massive increase in demand. This can result in producing more of your good after you automate, and even increasing the demand for people to produce your good.

Even if you don't drop prices, increased marginal profit can also increase production. Things like marketing are mostly fixed costs that don't scale with marginal sales; something with a higher marginal profit can afford much more marketing. And successful marketing increases demand for your product, without adjusting the price.

This pattern -- decreases in cost results in increase in spending -- is actually really common. You can see it in car safety (making cars safer to drive results in people driving more recklessly; so instead of reduced deaths, you get decreased travel times!), energy efficiency (more efficient lighting results in people installing more lights and leaving them on longer, so power use can increase), computers (computer chips getting cheaper and more effective has produced a much, much larger market for computer chips), and many other areas.

If you are producing something that more people would love to have, but it costs too much/they don't know about it, then automating production is quite likely to increase the amount of production you are doing, and can increase total labor costs.

This effect gets even stronger when you have any kind of competition; if they can cut costs faster than you, they could put your company completely out of business. In this case, you can cut costs by automation, have people be let go, and still as a result save jobs at your company.

On the minus side, current corporate culture isn't only about growth and getting companies bigger in narrow areas. Incompetent head staff may be perfectly happy with cutting costs and increasing margins and not bothering with growth; their goals are aligned with producing a great narrative about their performance, and "I cut costs 30% and boosted our margins" is a quicker way to get a bullet on your resume for your next job than "I cut prices by 30% and started a sustained increase in sales".

Examine your C-level and other head staff. Determine what their priorities are. If their priorities is to cut costs and increase margins, then automation will probably (overall) cut jobs. If their priorities is to grow the company, then automation will (overall) produce growth.


TL;DR -- what you should tell your coworkers depends on what the C-level staff is aiming to do. Automating work will enable your C-level staff to do what their aims are. Automating work may also convince your C-level staff to change direction, but only if they are interested in doing that.

1

If you are really interested in answering that charge in one-on-one interactions, perhaps you're willing to research if there's any truth to it?

Why exactly is this particular automation project a priority for the company, over everything else you could be doing?

If your employer is like mine, most likely its sales are limited by some combination of the amount of its production capacity and its labor cost per unit*. IOW: It could actually be taking on more work for those same workers, but they are already working at capacity for the staff they have, so suppliers are going to competitors for the rest.

Additionally, it could perhaps be selling and producing more units (which would employ more workers outside this one group) if it could lower prices a bit, but this one group's work is so labor intensive per unit that its holding everyone back.

Or one more possibility is that those workers are right. The company is staffed where it needs to be, sales/production growth isn't going to happen, and they are just looking for ways to do the exact same output with less staff. I think this one is probably unlikely. It'd be highly unusual for a business run like that to hire an IT staff (which is a huge red blinking cost sink) with the spare cycles to look for process improvements, but its probably happened somewhere. In this case, expect to be laid off right after the staff in the newly-automated department is laid off.

Point being, figure out exactly what this group and the company is going to gain with this improvement, and talk about that, specifically and in detail. Most likely it is not a staff reduction.

One thing that will also help with this clear suspicion is to make sure to ask them what about the current system annoys them, and make fixing/removing that a priority. That should make it look more like you are on their side (which you should be!)

* - The old saw is: "Money, Quality, & Time: Pick any 2". The only way to cheat this equation is to make your workers more productive.

  • After rereading the top answer, I think I was being to harsh on it. I've upvoted it, and removed anything negative I said about it. I think its still using too much "suit-ese", but probably fundamentally has the right of it. – T.E.D. Aug 29 at 20:25
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You can point out that you're also putting people to work: people who help design and manufacture the automation machines, people who create the parts, people who mine the metals for the parts, people who market and sell the machines - all of those are people who also need jobs.

You are helping people do more with less, but there will always still need to be people to be involved in the process.

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    In the abstract, that's true, but it's not going to make the coworkers who are afraid of being automated of their current jobs feel any better. – Llewellyn Aug 28 at 18:51
  • @Llewellyn - No, it won't, but if they pay attention, they'll be on the leading edge of the "automate things in this industry" revolution. – Julie in Austin Aug 28 at 19:04
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    This seems like a good way to get punched. Make sure to say it with a big grin, for maximum effect. – T.E.D. Aug 29 at 19:01
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You are not putting people out of work any more than technical and scientific progress in general. In a modern society nobody will pay you for being an alchemist or a swordman, and if you try to work as a slash-and-burn farmer you will end up in jail. Even trying to be a coachman or a handscraftsman will be much more of a challenge than it used to be.

Automation makes some jobs obsolete too. The thing to understand here is that this makes people unhappy, in the same way coachmen were unhappy about what Ford did. What you do is exactly like that - improving the life of most people, while putting out of work people who used to make a living from the gap that existed.

Explain that to your friends: if they still insist that keeping the status quo is more important than progress, I don't think you will be able to convince them.

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Now I think I get their perspective, but from my point of view, the more successfully automated we become, the more orders the company can bring in and therefore it should offset whatever "lost labor" there might be.

I've been in a similar situation, working to improve software and workflows that helped automate certain processes.

Thing is though... The company is undoubtedly more efficient, and thus more profitable, now. But as far as those who got fired are concerned, that doesn't matter at all. What matters is that they lost their job and income.

That's the way, I would suggest, that most employees see it. They're not seeing automation as something that will ease their workload, but rather as something that will eventually result in them getting laid off. And thus they'll be hostile towards those implementing such systems.

So how to react...? I would suggest referring any complaints to your manager. It's not really a debate you should get involved in. You're merely doing you job, and the final decision to automate (or not) is not yours.

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I work in a small manufacturing company on special projects that automate some processes

It sounds like your bosses already expect to lay off workers as you are hired to automate the processes for them. So your bosses are the one who needs to explain, not you.

Honestly I don't think you should say anything at all. Just keep working to do the work you're hired to do. Unless you're the same type of worker and "discovering" all the things to automate work. In that case, you might need to explain, but if you're hired to automate processes, then it's clear your bosses are expecting to lay off workers or shuffle them around as they see fit.

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There's several things I want to address as part of my answer.

Job Creation

The fact of the matter is that automation makes more jobs than it takes away. As automation removes the lower end jobs, or functions of jobs, it releases those people to take on different types of work, which gives them the opportunity to do work that wasn't previously done due to lack of funding, lack of labor, lack of interest, or a hundred other things. As a software developer, there's lots of things that become "technical debt" due to the inability for us to get to it right away, if ever.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/09/18/machines-will-create-million-more-jobs-than-they-displace-by-world-economic-forum-says/?noredirect=on

Retraining and Increase of Wages

I've been in job markets where there are more people doing the work, or trying to do the work, than there is work. I got fed up with the lack of work, low wages, and employers replacing me anytime they decided to, whether it's because I made a mistake, office politics, "the economy", or whatever. I learned a new topic and got into another sector, increasing my wages and my ability to stay in a job.

A stick welder of 40 years might not be able to become a doctor through retraining, but they can learn MIG and TIG welding, which can get them a better job at a higher rate. A previous MIG/TIG welder at an industrial job might decide to start their own custom bike business, due to running out of work at their job. A bike builder might decide to start designing bikes in CAD, instead of doing the manual work. A CAD worker for a bike maker might decide to design farming machinery. The farm machinery CAD operator might decide to get an actual 4 year engineering degree so they can tell their now former colleagues how to build the new version of the harvester. An engineer might decide to quit killing their brain with equations and be a manager. A lower manager might become a CxO. A CxO might decide to start a brand new business that ends up hiring a bunch of new people to create a new product or service in an industry that is being under served by the existing companies.

It's a long road involving a bunch of people, and it still doesn't end in a medical doctor, but it can easily improve each persons pay rate by 10% or more. That's far more than most of the raises I've ever gotten.

BTW, I start my "ladder climb" example with a stick welder, but I know those people aren't the very bottom of the ladder. (I didn't intend to start at the very bottom, either.) They might not be the smartest people, but to be good at that job takes a lot of experience and hard work. Even though I'm a software developer, I've welded a fair amount. It's hard work besides the physical labor involved. Knowing the correct amperage, type of metals, type of sticks to use, the correct procedures to get a good weld, and more is not something that can be learned in a short while. I have a lot of respect for good welders.

Speed of Automation

It takes a lot of time to automate most jobs. Even the "simple" ones can take weeks and months. Most of the time, people have a lot of time to be able to replace their jobs. If they can't find a better job inside the company, they should be looking outside the company. If they are surprised by losing their job, they likely weren't paying attention. Even if nothing is ever said, there's still usually indications.

These indications are often when management goes silent or seems to be skittish about certain topics. If they stop talking about "the future", pay raises, bonuses, or maybe start talking about early retirement packages. Even managers usually hate firing people. Not only do they know people need to get paid to stay fed, clothed, housed, etc, but if their whole team is fired, they likely get fired, too.

Even when a place has automation coming in, it takes a long time to get it installed and fully functional. During that time, the company usually needs to stay functional and performing their duties to their customers. Even after all the automation is installed, those machines need maintenance and even a human overseer. If (and when) something goes completely outside of the original machine parameters, a human still needs to come in and correct it, even if it's as simple as removing a jammed bottle from a conveyor belt that fell over at a bad spot.

Some Jobs are Immortal

Even though we have cars, and cars are made using a huge amount of automation, there are still horse carriages. True, there aren't as many as there used to be, but they still exist. These are still made by humans. Until people get completely tired of taking a horse drawn carriage for fun or for their weddings, those carriages will still need to be built. This means that a certain amount of people will always be employed making them. This also goes for the people who maintain the carriages as well as the horses. Sure, you can automate some of that away, but not all of it. The fact is that some jobs will just never go away.

Some jobs will always require humans

A robot can place components on a circuit board faster and more precise than a human, but they can't design it, diagnose it, or fix it. Sure, you can throw the board away and simply replace it, but that's wasteful and a human is needed to recycle the precious metals and hazardous materials in that board.

There's plenty of things that will require human intervention for the foreseeable future. It'll take hundreds or even thousands of years to be able to get to a place where humans don't have to do 90% of the jobs available today, and more than likely, new jobs that we can't conceive of today will exist to replace them.

Just 100 years ago, most of the jobs today didn't exist. Computers were invented in 1937, yet it took almost 40 years for being a computer programmer became a standard position. Before the 1980's, it was relegated to government and University positions. Now there are millions of software developer. Computers replaced a lot of job, yet it also made a bunch of other jobs as well as making people more productive, in general (when they aren't watching cat videos on social media).

Something as "simple" as a secretary went from having to type 100 copies of the same letter through the course of a week; to typing it once, then printing it 100 times in a couple of minutes. Companies used to have lots of secretaries that only replicated documentation for higher level secretaries. Now that can duplication can be done by nearly anyone, simply by going to the copier or telling the printer to make more copies, how to collate it, single or double sided, if it needs staples, binding, or whatever.

Management's Job

Automating really is a good thing, even if people can't see it. You can't explain it to them well enough in 5 minutes to make them understand, and it's not your job anyway. You get told what to work on, just like the people who's jobs you are automating. Whether it's improving their performance, improving their working conditions, or removing the need for their position doesn't really matter to some people, and you can't explain it well enough to these people. Some people, yes, but it's still not your job.

Many people will have a mindset that automation is evil and nothing good can come from it. Nothing anyone can say will likely change their mind, mostly because they don't want to change their minds. Not your fault and not your problem. Unfortunately, you have to treat everyone the same way as you do these people, as in directing them to your manager for their grievances. You are paid to be the automation engineer/tech, not the PR or HR person. Again, that's the managers job. A good manager will put themselves between you and the other employees. Even good ones won't catch everyone, so make sure that you do the rerouting of things anyway. Likely the manager has more experience in talking to these other workers and better know how to handle them than you do. It's still their job, not yours.

I'm sure I had other things to say, but I can't remember them anymore.

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You keeping the company afloat.

If you don't automate these tasks, the company will lose out to the competition (who are automating these tasks) and none of you will have jobs.

There are already a lot of good answers that deal with other benefits.

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Like an executioner to a convict: this is not personal, this is purely professional. If not me, it would just be somebody else.

Maybe this is not actually very good that is going on. And you do not need to prove it is good. But the opposition must happen at the different level than just abusing the final person who does.

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Yes, you are doing their job, or part of their job, faster and cheaper than they do. Their reaction is perfectly normal.

Someone who doesn't automate but simply does the same job the same way, except twice as fast as everyone else, is also putting someone out of a job.

Now let's put this to the extreme: If they worked at half speed they would create a lot of jobs. By working full speed they put a lot of people out of their jobs. So why don't they work at half speed? Work ethics? Pride? Not wanting the entire factory to be closed? The very same reasons apply to you.

Finally, if everyone works at full speed, the pie gets larger. Even a small piece of a big productive pie contains highways, social security, universal health care, free education, workers rights, unemployment benefits, public transport, and a fair legal system. Small unproductive pies can't afford those.

protected by Mister Positive Aug 29 at 18:44

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