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07/09/2020

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Two thoughts regarding covid-19’s influence on working remotely and automation.

Working Remotely: I used to work for Boeing and being a very conservative, old-school company, they by and large believed if you weren’t at your seat or in the office you weren’t working. Given some of the constructs in society that have changed in the last decades (e.g. more duo-income families, availability of laptops/videocams, competitors allowing partial remote “benefits”, younger generations being more adapted to technology, etc.), I personally believe companies today have to be more receptive to alternate forms of working whether it is on a part-time or case-by-case basis. This would help remain competitive in terms of attracting top talent, eliminating potential retention issues, and ideally increasing productivity levels.

Automation: The WSJ article highlights the long-standing view that the development of automation technology will lead to the loss of jobs. I do appreciate, however, it also points out the opportunities available in the meatpacking environment today including improved safety, mitigating turnover issue, and more humane working conditions. Rather than looking at automation black and white, it can be looked at as complimentary, improving (i) safety standards, (ii) ergonomic conditions for the workforce, and (iii) consistency of predictable products for the company and the consumer. Meatpackers not thinking along these lines would be short-sighted given changes in consumer preferences (e.g. deboned chicken, skinless meat, etc.) and potential for additional regulations may serve as a forcing function to how they must run their business sooner or later.

Regarding automation in general with work, I think it is an inevitable choice that a modernized country must choose. They must either embrace this trend or not, and risk falling behind in their global standing (in the economy, education, technology, etc.). For the most part, I can see how automation in the meat packing industry will bring about many benefits, including safety/fewer injuries, cleaner work environments, and efficiency in production to the company, its employees, and end customers.

However, in reading this article, I also wonder if companies with its leadership deciding to pursue technology and automation also consider the impacts to the workforce currently performing the labor. It appears that, at least in this article, it focuses on the benefits of automation, and only in the last handful of paragraphs, it is mentioned that “workers are in no danger of being replaced…[as they] can be moved into other, open positions, so layoffs aren’t needed”. I wonder what types of jobs these would be, if there are enough positions, or if the workers have the right skills to transition successfully into these positions without added costs to train? In a discussion we had in class, it overall, makes me wonder, will technology and automation ever outpace our ability to manage it and our society?

Further, I thought the NBER paper pointed out interesting findings on the impact of COVID 19 on demographics; the researchers found, “that occupations held by mid-educated females are at highest risk, notably including some healthcare, office and administrative support, and protective service occupations”, so, in addition to impacts of automation to largely unskilled labor (as in the previous article), this pandemic could end up impacting many more people than imagined. I find this analysis somewhat grim, as the impacts of the pandemic on reducing the workforce will deeply affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, namely, future generations who must ultimately take on living with or adapting to the impacts.

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