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How to respond to the threat technology poses to employment

Job-skills training is a good way to protect your employability, Peter Crabb writes. Surgical-technologist student Travis Stice, left, assists instructor Biff Boggs on a simulated appendectomy surgery during Stice’s clinical final exam in November at the College of Western Idaho in Boise.
Job-skills training is a good way to protect your employability, Peter Crabb writes. Surgical-technologist student Travis Stice, left, assists instructor Biff Boggs on a simulated appendectomy surgery during Stice’s clinical final exam in November at the College of Western Idaho in Boise. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

It’s been said that at the factory of the future you will find only a man and his dog. The dog is there to protect the machines making everything, and the man is there to feed the dog.

Stories likes this scare us. We have a tendency to fear that technology is taking away all our jobs.

Despite a decline in the U.S. unemployment rate to now less than 5 percent, many workers, and those looking for work, say machines are taking their jobs. Many feel threatened by the long-run trend of technology.

Technological advances make it more and more possible to replace workers with machines. Even if we are not afraid of machines, communication technology and advances in transportation make it easier to transfer work to lower-paid factory workers on the other side of the world.

The question is what to do about it. No one can sit back and watch his or her business or job fade away. Businesses and workers alike must invest in the future.

It’s important to first note that technical changes to business, and the disruptions they cause, are nothing new. Economist Joseph Schumpeter in the early 20th century identified the process known as creative destruction and its impact on existing businesses and workers. The theory holds that continuous innovation brings about change much in the same way evolution changes natural systems.

More recently, economist Tyler Cowen, in his book “Average is Over,” argued that we all must learn and innovate. Cowen writes, “For the foreseeable future, you’ll always have to be learning something, reprogramming something, downloading new software, and pushing some buttons, all to have the sometimes dubious privilege of working with these new technological wonders.”

We may not aspire to the privilege, but innovation and technology make us more productive. As Cowen teaches, evidence shows that higher productivity leads to a higher standard of living.

When we see jobs that have been commonly held by Americans no longer existing in America, and the existing jobs paying less, we get uncomfortable. The best response to this trend is to work smarter, not just harder.

Invest in your future by learning something new.

Peter Crabb is professor of finance and economics at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. prcrabb@nnu.edu. This column appears in the February 15-March 14, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on technology. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).

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