The Paradox of Worry About Job-Taking Robots in an Environment of Labor Shortages

Could the big idea that has captured so much of our higher ed imagination actually be wrong?

September 21, 2017

The big idea that has captured much of our collective imagination is that the robots are coming to take our jobs.  Well, maybe not our jobs - as higher ed people seem convinced that no A.I. could ever do what they do.  But everyone else's job.

At every academic / educational technology conference that I attend we always end up talking about robots. Those of us who work at liberal arts colleges actually feel pretty good about the future of robots, as we think that our broad education in communication, collaboration, and creativity will withstand automation.  Still, even the liberal arts crowd is worried.

How could we not be worried?  Not a day goes by where there is some smart person or another, often working at a university, who talks about our robot driven jobless future. I’m totally looking forward to reading Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Northeastern's president Joseph E. Aoun. (A book you can read more about here).  

The last Academic Minute that I listened to IHE was New York Institute of Technology's Kevin LaGrandeur talking about the role that artificial intelligence will have in reducing employment. LaGrandeur is a professor in the department of English at New York Institute of Technology, worried that:

“...intelligent technology is displacing not only manual labor, but also middle-class jobs and higher level jobs. This displacement includes journalists, technical writers, and accountants, a profession that risks a very significant percent chance of being displaced by intelligent technology in the next ten years. Contrary to popular belief, the real threat to American jobs isn’t flesh-and-blood foreign workers – it’s robots."

LaGrandeur is not alone in his concern about employment and automation. A report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that over half of the current jobs done by people will be automated by 2055.  A 2016 U.S. government report estimated that 3 million of the 3.7 million jobs in the transportation sector are threatened by automation. Among those at most risk are truck drivers (~1.7 million), delivery drivers (~825,000), school bus drivers (~500,000) transit bus drivers (~170,000),   taxi driver (~180,000), and Uber/Lyft drivers (~364,000).

With all this worry across higher education and everywhere else about the future of robots of jobs, how then do we square the constant news that we hear about labor shortages?

Here are some recent headlines grabbed in a couple minutes of Googling:

These headlines about worker shortages don’t even touch on the real challenge of work in our time, that is the curse of understaffing.  Everyone that I know works in a department, a unit, or a division where there is not enough people to do the work.  Everybody seems to be doing more than one job.  Higher education has not been immune from this new reality of permanent scarcity and structural understaffing.

The question is, are worker shortages and understaffing structural or cyclical? What is the underlying reason behind there being more jobs than people to do them?  Is the reason for understaffing not a lack of qualified people to do the jobs that need to be done, but rather that it is too risky and expensive to hire new workers?

Given the realities of understaffing and worker shortages, shouldn’t we at least be entertaining the notion that robots and automation are actually good things?

Could the problem of the future not be that the robots are coming, but that they are coming too slowly?

I’d at least like to float the possibility that those of us in higher education are worried about the wrong things. That we should be cheering the arrival of the robots, rather than fretting about the negative impact that they might have on jobs.

Are you a robot enthusiast?


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