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24 January, 2022

Technology can help to deskill tasks too

07 August, 2019

One of the key arguments for increasing the use of automation is that it allows workers to take on more rewarding jobs. But what if they cannot perform these higher-level tasks? Victoria Montag, Gambica’s sector head* for industrial automation, argues that technology could help here too by deskilling more some of the more complex occupations.

I am 99% sure that the most common conversation I have in my professional life is about automation and jobs. The topic always seems to come up in conversation, especially when I talk to people outside of Gambica’s membership.

I also get questioned on the matter by my friends. When I posted that I had got the job of Head of Sector for Industrial Automation on social media, a former university friend took it upon themselves to use quite explicit language to tell me that I was championing “job-stealing capitalism”. 

Happily, after more than three years, this friend is now less emphatic and willing to have a friendly discussion about the matter.

It is clear that the reason it keeps cropping up is because it’s important. And people are genuinely concerned.

As a result of these conversations, in addition to researching the subject in the course of my job, I have honed my argument. Stick me in front of anyone and I can wax lyrical about how automation is ultimately a good thing for the jobs market. I have solid examples, I have statistics. “More jobs and better jobs” is the headline.

However, recently, something happened to throw me off my perch.

Last weekend, during a hike, I got chatting to a friend. Somehow, while talking about our respective jobs, the subject of “automation taking jobs” came up. 

My autopilot kicked in. I described how, yes, tasks were being replaced, but processes would become more efficient, less wasteful, etc, and therefore more productive and more profitable, resulting in not only more jobs, but better jobs and better-paid jobs. Plus, I added, we are talking about jobs such as putting pies in boxes – doesn’t everyone want something a bit more rewarding?

I looked at my friend, waiting expectantly for her to acknowledge that, at least, she hadn’t thought of it that way. I was disappointed. Instead of basking in how very clever I am and admiring my oratory, she asked: “But what about the people who can only put a pie in a box”?

“I’m sorry, who can only put a pie in a box?,” I said. And then it dawned on me. My friend doesn’t much care about talk of ROI or job growth through new market entrants or supply chains. She works with adults with the severest learning difficulties – people who, like the rest of us, want to be useful and productive, but can’t just be upskilled from putting a pie in a box to, for example, running a warehouse.

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