Automation and computerization are rapidly becoming hot-button issues, both journalistically and politically. As many workers are all too aware, the pace of technological advancement is dramatically impacting the jobs market, as much of the work previously performed by human laborers can now be completed by relatively inexpensive robots and computerized systems.
Many global thinkers, scientists, and business leaders are debating the long-term impact and immediate ramifications of this automation explosion in recent years. Industries hit the hardest tend to be those in manufacturing, where core job tasks tend to follow well-defined, repetitive procedures, which can invariably be codified in computer software and, thus, performed by machines.
While the fallout of this computerized-boom continues to be analyzed, it’s important to recognize some of the benefits of this rise in automation. Most importantly, we can rest easier knowing that, historically, a dramatic rise in technological advancement has never permanently replaced human workers in the marketplace; it merely redirects human labor to other, more advanced jobs.
When dealing with any form of skilled labor, emphasis must be placed on the skilled characteristic. No matter the particular form of labor a skilled laborer performs, he or she is still highly trained and skillful. In many ways, a factory worker or plumber is no different from an database administrator or programmer: In each case, the individual practices and learns a particular set of skills, applicable to the job at hand.
As we’ll see throughout this article, the transition into a more computerized and automated world of work may present temporary displacement of some traditional occupations and workers, but it also presents new opportunities in other fields: in particular, coding.
The Trajectory of Automation
Traditionally, computerization, automation, and other forms of non-human labor have been adopted within labor-intensive, highly-repetitive occupations. This process first began when humans realized oxen were much better at plowing their fields. Not only did this dramatically reduce the labor that farmers had to endure, but it freed them up to take on more complicated tasks (improving irrigation, forming trade networks, etc).
Just as horses replaced humans for efficient field-work and faster travel, in time, automobiles replaced horses. Industrial advancements have maintained much the same trajectory, where human labor executing simple tasks is often replaced by machines (and later robots) that can perform the same tasks, much faster and with little downtime.
Yet, while automation has typically been relegated to industrial tasks and improvements in the workforce, with the advancement of computerization, these automated processes are now beginning to encroach on the more creative occupations as well, where subtle human judgments were traditionally a necessity in the past. Computers are now frequently used for tasks ranging from perform high-volume financial trading to monitoring hospital intensive care units.
This shift comes largely from the power of programming, algorithms, and machine learning advancements. Automation has even started to encroach on software engineering and programming, where advancements in algorithm design allow computers to make complex parameter and design choices within software. Coding, in particular, has recently seen a spike in the direct use of automation as a means of creating better software. The rise of
agile software development methodologies has placed heavy emphasis on automated testing and other DevOps practices over the past few decades.
Thankfully, according to labor economists, while it may seem like a hopeless situation for workers displaced by computerization, there has never been a better (nor more necessary) time for workers whose jobs were lost to robots to transition into other forms of skilled labor. According to Lawrence Katz, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and previous Chief Economist at the US Labor Department under President Clinton, the market must emphasize the transition of displaced laborers. “Just allowing the private market to automate without any support is a recipe for blaming immigrants and trade and other things, even when it’s the long impact of technology,” says Katz. Transitioning workers is undoubtedly challenging, but many techniques can dramatically ease the process, including retraining programs, stronger unions, more public-sector jobs, increased minimum wage, larger income-earned tax credits, and improved college graduation rates.
The Race Between Machine and Man, a recent paper published in May 2016, analyzes the correlation between technology growth and human employment. The authors conclude that, while technological advances typically cause some forms of labor to become automated, more complex versions of existing tasks invariably become available for laborers to undertake. Just as the use of animal labor in the fields freed humans to take on other roles, so to will robotics and computers present new employment opportunities.
The paper contends that economic shifts from job title trends show these transitions in action. In 2000, 70% of the workers employed as software developers held new job titles. The same was true in 1990 for radiology technicians and in 1980 for management analysts. In fact, from 1980 to 2007, U.S. employment grew by 17.5%, with nearly half of that growth (8.84%) coming from employment in entirely new occupations.
Modern Factory Jobs are Automation Jobs
To understand what makes coding a job for everyone in the immediate to far future, it’s important to observe the landscape of modern factory work, in particular. Obviously, programmers can always get work with actual development studios, or by creating web sites as freelancers, but modern technological advancements on factory floors is what’s really driving the need for coders: in particular, coders that have transitioned from factory labor jobs in the first place.
Factories are nothing if not efficient. Most modern factories utilize a great deal of robotics and computerized automation within their workflows, in stark contrast to the labor-reliant mills of the 18th century. Instead, factories are now highly technical systems, requiring employees that can work with computers, robotics, and automated systems.
Many manufacturers and factory-owners are beginning to see this trend for what it is, and embrace the need for a new round of trained, skilled laborers that can deal with these machines. John Deere, for example, has been heavily focusing on finding workers who can handle the technology necessary to repair their million-dollar farming machines. As Andy Winnett, director of John Deere’s agricultural program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington puts it, “The toolbox is now a computer.”
This dramatic transition from manual human labor, to mechanical machines, and now to digital computers used to perform skilled factory and manufacturing work, is vital for workers to understand. Both employers and potential employees must embrace this transition to computerization, and the sooner they do, the better for everyone involved.
Companies like Siemens are serious enough to be starting their own apprenticeship programs in local high schools, combining on-the-job training with community college degrees. “In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 or 30 feet,” says Eric Spiegel, the now-retired President and Chief Executive of Siemens U.S.A. “People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.”
Since automation, computerization, robotics, and many other fields are all combined within these modern industrial settings, just having the title of “programmer” is not really the pinnacle of a well-suited employee for many of these organizations. Instead, what matters most to employers is the ability to automate: To analyze and evaluate problems logically, which can then be transferred into tangible solutions in the workplace. It just so happens that employees trained in coding have those skills ingrained in them.
Programming is for Everyone
With such a dramatic shift in employment opportunities, skilled laborers in the modern workplace may need to be skilled in areas that were previously considered out of the realm of possibility, such as coding. Yet, coding is no longer a profession that should be considered for only an elite few; those highly-skilled and technically-minded individuals. Instead, there’s an influx of both free and inexpensive education and training, millions of existing developers often able to provide guidance, and most importantly as we examined above, a huge demand for programmers and logical thinkers in technical positions.
For many developers and their respective employers, coding is just another form of skilled labor. In modern software development, knowing how to find an answer to a problem is far more important than knowing the answer. While there will always be the Gateses and Zuckerbergs of the world — individuals with the foresight and expertise to create advanced, mathematical algorithms well beyond understanding for most of us — the realm of software development always needs far more “everyday” coders. As much as some developers might scoff at the idea, a bit of basic understanding of programming principles and a good grasp of using Google to find answers is all that most people need to get started with development. Don’t expect to create the next Google or Amazon, but for most workers trying to transition from old forms of skilled labor to these new forms, those basics are all that’s required.
While technologies within the world of development are always in flux, this also lends itself well to newcomers, as newer technologies and techniques are always gaining popularity. This ensures that individuals just getting their feet wet in development can always find a new technology or technique, which they can get in on at the ground floor.
Agile methods are barely 15 years old,
responsive design is about 10 years old,
Node.js is 7 years old; the list goes on and on. As new technologies emerge and gain popularity, developers can quickly jump aboard that train and ride it to success, by starting out on much the same level as other newcomers.
Advanced mathematics and breakthrough algorithms are very much the exception, rather than the rule, for most development work, and rarely required for most programmers. Instead, development is typically written using fairly grounded technologies, for organizations that don’t know of (nor need) fancy solutions. A simple web page or automation script is, more often than not, what many businesses are looking for, and most programming newbies can tackle such tasks without years of training under their belts. The majority of professional developers are not, nor do they strive to be, the prototypical “genius coder” portrayed in the movies or the media.
Best of all, for individuals looking to transition into coding from other occupations, many organizations are recognizing that need. These outlets range from employers directly providing funds and training, to organizations like BitSource, which are aiming to transition workers from “traditional” jobs toward work as software developers and automation-oriented thinkers.
In short, modern workers should be those individuals willing to make the transition in the workplace, right alongside the automated and computerized tools that were originally intended to replace them.