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Is automation increasing the value of human work?

Automation does more than eliminate jobs and create new ones. It increases the value of human beings in the workplace.

There is a big debate going on right now about automation. Is it killing jobs and heralding in the downfall of civilization? Or is it a continuation of progress that has defined human history, to the net benefit of society?

There are compelling arguments on both sides. Personally, I tend to come down on the side of automation being a net gain for civilization, which shouldn’t be surprising given my line of work. However, there is more to it than that. Automation does more than eliminate some jobs and create more new ones.

It increases the value of human beings in the workplace.

From my own observations, I know how automation can affect jobs. Every machine that I sell supports the employment of engineers (mechanical, electrical, software, safety, etc.), machinists, assemblers, purchasing agents, salespeople, marketers, service technicians, accountants, and web designers. It also supports insurance agents and attorneys, but nobody’s perfect.

Those are just the effects on my side of the equation. For the companies I sell to, it’s also a net improvement.

I typically work with smaller manufacturers, for whom automation represents a huge cost savings. That allows them to be more nimble, take advantage of market opportunities, and grow faster. And therefore, add employees.

But there’s more to it than headcount. There is also the matter of the quality of work that’s being performed.

When a job is lost to automation in the packaging industry, it’s typically not a “good” job, as you so often hear. Often it’s a job that’s repetitive, menial, possibly dangerous, and let’s face it, mindless. The machines I build and sell take products from a conveyor and place them in cartons. Over and over and over.

That hardly can be classified as satisfying work. It’s taxing on the body and numbing on the mind. Human beings were meant for more than that. We have the ability to think, decide, and adjust.

More often than not, the companies who buy my machines redeploy the people whose jobs were replaced in different ways. They are tasked with helping the production line run smoother, faster, and better, instead of just being a cog in the wheel.

They’re given jobs that make better use of their abilities as human beings.

Of course, I don’t want to be insensitive to individuals who have been displaced by automation. There are certainly people who have lost their livelihoods because unblinking machines have replaced them. These are people who deserve and need help adjusting to a new reality.

But progress marches on, whether we like it or not. It’s futile to stand in its way or pretend it’s not happening. Our focus should not be on preserving the inhuman jobs of the past, but instead on helping people adjust and leverage what makes them uniquely human in their work.

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