Could a Computer Do Your Job?

Decades ago, there were people who predicted that computers would someday eliminate the need for human workers.  Computers are indeed a part of almost everyone’s job these days, a factor that is generally credited with the amazing gains in U.S. worker productivity over the past 10 years.  

Computers have caused significant changes in the labor market, and some jobs have been replaced by technology.  For example, computerized assembly lines mean fewer people are employed in factories; this accounts for some of the dramatic decline in manufacturing employment. Electronic security systems now allow one guard to monitor many company locations at once.  Computers fly planes, analyze car engines and monitor patients in hospitals. According to Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, authors of The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, computers excel at “jobs that can be described as a series of logical rules.”  A “series of rules” goes something like this:

  • First, check to see if…
  • If yes, then do this; if no, go to this step…

 That’s how computers can take over tasks like checking in passengers at airlines, seeing if items are in stock in a warehouse, or processing payroll. 

Levy and Murnane find that this “rules-based” repetitive work occurs most frequently in clerical jobs—particularly back office work—and in assembly line work. These jobs are also vulnerable from a second direction because the ability to describe a job in rules makes it easier to move the jobs to a lower wage country to be done by workers with little or no education.

The authors say that there are three main types of work cannot be described in rules:

1. Identifying and solving new problems (if the problem is new, there is no rules-based solution to program).

2. Engaging in complex communication—verbal and non-verbal—with other people in jobs like leading, negotiating, teaching, and selling.

3. Many “simple” physical tasks central to janitorial work, waiting on tables, and other service work. (For example, entering an unfamiliar room and making sense of what you see is trivial for a human but extremely difficult to program.)

The end result of computerization is that the “middle jobs” in office and manufacturing companies are shrinking, while more complex jobs that require analysis and simple physical jobs are growing.  While many clerical and production jobs fit this description, some higher-end jobs fit the description as well— such as floor traders in securities exchanges whose jobs are being taken by computerized trading networks.

Employers are requiring different and more complex skills of their mid level employees.  As one recruiter put it, “It’s not enough to be able to enter data in Excel; anyone can do that.  What I need is someone who can analyze the data and tell me what it means.”   Understanding how to add value to your job becomes a matter, then, of adding communication, analysis and problem solving to your performance each day.  It’s the development of these skills, not simply technical skills, that becomes the driver of how critical you are to your team.

As you consider your worth to your company, think for a minute about what you do.  If part of your routine can be described as a series of logical rules, the good news is that computerization can make you much more productive.  The bad news is that if most of your job can be described that way, a computer could do it much more efficiently than you.

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