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iThink Twice-i Crystal Gazing and the Future of Work

August 29, 2002
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Look into your crystal ball at the workforce of the future. You probably seea labor shortage--millions of jobs, too many retired people. As aworld-renowned futurist, Joe Coates sees something else. He sees a society inwhich tens of thousands of people have no jobs--no livelihood at all.

Coates, who holds 19 patents from his first career as an industrial chemist,says that automation will cause a massive labor surplus within about 10 years.

Kroger won’t need as many cashiers, because checkout stands will beautomated. FedEx won’t need as many delivery people, because machines will do more sorting. Shipping empire Maersk won’t need as many longshoremen, becausemachines will determine which packages belong on which trucks.

The public-policy implications of such a labor surplus are enormous. If we’regoing to have a surplus, as Coates predicts, we should debate whether to lower--notraise--the retirement age, because there won’t be a need for as many olderemployees.

We should consider making sabbaticals commonplace for people outsideacademia. We may even consider paying people to raise children, he says.

Roger Herman, Tom Olivo, and Joyce Gioia take the opposite point of view. Intheir new book, Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too FewPeople, the authorswrite about job shortages and warn HR leaders of “a potential catastrophe justaround the corner.”

Herman notes that many economists predict that unemployment will be onlyabout 4 percent in 2010. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in thesame year, the U.S. employment market will have about 10.3 million more jobsavailable than warm bodies to fill them.

Coates doesn’t have a problem with those figures, at least on the surface.He says that Herman’s numbers forecasting a significant labor shortage tend tobe accurate, if you follow a “conventional and traditional model of thinking.”But, he says, Herman is “terribly mis-estimating the consequences ofinformation technology on the society.”

Herman admits that automation does have some effect on workforce planning. Onthe other hand, he is quick to point out that between 2000 and 2010, the fouroccupations requiring the greatest number of new employees will be foodpreparation and service, customer service, registered nursing, and retail sales.

“How’d you like to be cared for by an automated nurse?” he asks.


New jobs will becreated in other industries to replace work that is obsolete.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that within 10 years all of these jobs couldbe automated. Sure, more of us will scan our own groceries. But new jobs will becreated in other industries to replace work that is obsolete. We’ll have jobsfor people to design and program and maintain and sell all of those newself-service grocery machines.

It’s a lot like what’s happening in the HR field. If you installed HRMSand benefits self-service, over a period of several years your ratio ofemployees to HR pros would increase from, perhaps, 80:1 to 110:1. Just becauseyour employee-to-HR ratio increased, however, doesn’t mean that automationcaused unemployment. You downsized because you automated your benefitsadministration. The company that built that benefits software grew--it hiredprogrammers to build the system and upgrade it, designers to design it, and asales force to hawk it. Meanwhile, you outsourced some of your functions toExult, Hewitt, and others. They also hired some of your former colleagues.

Ira Wolfe, a futurist who calls his standard speech “The Perfect LaborStorm: Why This Labor Shortage Will Not Blow Over,” says automation doesn’tcost--and even creates--jobs. Wolfe was in a fast-food convenience store onAugust 1 and noticed that it took three “associates” and one store managerto check out a customer, while the line stretched out the door.

Thanks to automation, the convenience (word used loosely) store doesn’thave to take time to inventory its products and can now track customerbuying-habits. But automation didn’t enable it to hire fewer customer-serviceemployees, nor are these employees working more quickly because of technology.

Look, this debate about the future isn’t just an academic exercise. Thelabor shortage affects more than HR; it also affects you and me when we’re notat work. Patients in hospitals with high turnover, for example, are sicker andstay in the hospital longer, according to VHA, a hospital cooperative.

We have a decade to see which side is right. My money says that in 10 years,I will not be cared for by an automatic nurse.

Workforce, September 2002, pp. 112 -- Subscribe Now!


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