Is Automation a Job Killer?

A recent segment on “60 Minutes” suggests advances in robotics and associated technologies account for why the economic recovery so far has often been referred to as “jobless.” An automation industry association takes issue with that conclusion.


While ushering in a new era of efficiency, advances in automation technology are also limiting job opportunities as ever-more-sophisticated machines continue to take over structured, routine tasks once performed by people. That’s the main thrust of “March of the Machines,” an aptly titled segment from CBS news program “60 Minutes” that explores the transformational effect of robots and other automation technologies on the workplace, from banks to airports to manufacturing facilities. Two MIT professors quoted in the piece say this phenomenon is part of the reason why unemployment remains stubbornly high despite the rebound in investment and corporate profits.

However, the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a trade group representing the automation industry, says the program’s focus on automation as a job-killer is wrong-headed and one-sided. “We provided ’60 Minutes’ producers with several examples of innovative American companies that have used automation to become stronger global competitors, saving and creating more jobs … rather than closing up shop or sending jobs overseas,” says Jeff Burnstein, the group’s president, in a recently issued statement. “They unfortunately chose not to include these companies in their segment.”

In fairness, the “60 Minutes” piece takes a broad view, and it does single out manufacturing as “an early casualty of automation that is making a comeback because of it.” Likewise, the two MIT professors mention the issue of companies not being able to find employees with the right skills, even though they need fewer people as a whole. Still, in my view, there’s more reason for optimism than the segment indicates. While manufacturing may never return to the employment levels of past decades, even a quick browse through this website is sufficient to find numerous concrete examples of automation playing a key role in keeping work—and the jobs associated with it—in the United States. The media and the general public need to understand that there are opportunities here as well as challenges, and for that, it’s critical that associations like A3 and other industry representatives continue to make their voices heard.