EFFECT OF THE CHANGING NATURE
OF THE WORKPLACE ON THE INDIVIDUAL WORKER
In the economics of industrial society, the purpose of the computerization of the workplace is to replace labor with machines, thereby reducing the unit cost of production while increasing both productivity and efficiency. (Ellwood) Instead of hiring twenty workers to accomplish one task, an employer can simply buy one machine to do the same task faster and more efficiently; less resources are invested while much more output is generated. In general theory, the introduction of technology into the workplace spurs economic growth and prosperity, resulting in the creation of more and better jobs, higher wages and an increased standard of living. However, when looking at specific data and analysis, it becomes apparent that each level of worker is distinctly affected by the computerization of the workplace.
Lower Level, Low Skill workers:
These workers, such as factory workers, people in the service sector and others performing labor-intensive, low-skill tasks, are perhaps the most affected by the changing nature of work. The introduction of new technology has effectively eliminated their role in the workplace. As computers and machines are quickly replacing them in the workplace, these individuals are finding it harder and harder to maintain employment.
Author Jeremy Rifkin explains that "near-workerless factories and virtual companies are looming on the horizon." (Ellwood) He predicts that less than 12% of Americans will work in factories within the decade and less than 2% of the global work force will be engaged in factory work by the year 2020.
Examples of this evolution are evident in all facets of modern society. Machines that fold clothes are taking the place of workers in clothing factories; bank tellers are being replaced by ATM machines; gasoline station attendants are no longer as needed with the installation of new credit-card accepting pumps; secretaries are being replaced by computerized answering machines; subway tokens in New York are now being dispensed by machines.
Federal Express (Fedex), a delivery shipment company, has eliminated much of its need for telephone operators, thus laying off thousands of employees, with its development of an internet site through which customers can immediately and effectively track their packages.
Low level, low-skill workers are at a great disadvantage in the face of the changing nature of work. Not only are their jobs extremely easily replaced by the advances of technology, but also many of these workers do not have the skills or capabilities to find new employment in the technology-focused workplace of today. Furthermore, many of these workers simply do not have the resources or the time to learn new technical skills. With the nature of work focusing more and more on technology, low-level workers are losing their jobs and finding themselves unable to compete in the modern workplace.
Middle Management workers:
The situation with the middle management workers, who form a large part of the corporate sector of the workplace, reflects the plight of the lower level workers. The middle management consists of those workers or managers involved in the coordination, processing and researching of information and activities. However, new computer technology such as databases, e-mail and the Internet has greatly reduced the need for or changed the responsibilities of these individuals, placing their job security at risk.
Analyst Virginia Sullivan explains: "As an automating technology, computerization can intensify the clerk's exile from the coordinative sphere of the managerial process." Rex Adams, Vice-President of Mobil Corporation, an international oil company, continued: "now [we] have standardized data gathering procedures in place and ready accessibility to data from any place on the planet. [However this means that] job security starts declining for data consolidators and explainers, and management layers being thinning...it's the death of bureaucracy." (Low)
In the state of Maryland, for example, thousands of employees in charge of processing tax returns were laid off in favor of new, computerized information-processing equipment. These employees were considered expendable with the introduction of new technology that could not only finish the task two weeks earlier than before, but also cost 5.7 million dollars less than those workers' salaries over the next five years. AT&T, the global telecommunications company, also has plans and is currently in the process of laying off 40,000 middle managers alone.
Much like the lower level workers, the middle management is irreversibly and vastly affected by changes in technology. They, too, find themselves being replaced by technology and computers which can do their jobs quickly and more effectively. Compared to lower level workers, this replacement process is much less drastic and less widespread, as there are tasks that not even computers can do more effectively than humans; however, the introduction of new technology effectively makes middle management workers more expendable. On the other hand, these individuals are usually higher-educated than lower level workers and thus find it much easier to re-train themselves--often learning themselves how to use the technology that replaced them--to survive in the new technological workplace.
High Management workers:
Unlike lower level and middle level workers, high management workers are not as adversely affected by the changing nature of work. The job security of high management workers is rarely placed at risk: the high management is in charge of deciding what technology will be used and how; it is unlikely that they will choose to use technology that will eliminate their own jobs.
However, this does not mean that their jobs are not affected at all. With the changing nature of work, high management workers are faced with two new problems. Firstly, they now must make decisions in regards to either investing resources and money in new technology, thus firing workers, or favoring workers over new technology. Such decisions cannot be taken lightly; new technology can be very costly and not necessarily more effective.
For example, when entering the delivery-segment of the pizza industry in the early 1980s, Pizza Hut opted to use a computerized Customer Answering Service that would field all the calls from a particular area and then electronically send orders to the closest delivery-only units. Thus customers would only have to call one number and not have to talk to individual delivery unit managers. Pizza Hut believed that this system would reduce the costs needed for maintaining separate workers who would answer the phone at each unit. However, this system had several problems in its initial installation such as orders being mixed up and other inefficiencies. As a result, Pizza Hut's reputation was damaged as consumers lost patience and faith in the company; this allowed Domino's, Pizza Hut's main competitor to increase its market share.
Secondly, with the elimination of middle management and lower level workers because of new technology, high management workers are essentially given more work. Not only does the high management have more decisions to make, but also someone must run or supervise the new technology. In many instances, high management must compensate for the loss of middle and lower level workers by doing their jobs, with the help of the new technology. Although the new technology does make the work easier and quicker, it nevertheless increases the workload of these individuals.
However, for the most part, high management workers benefit from the introduction of new technology. With the reduced costs of production and maintenance that the new technology offers, high management can increase the company's profits and take home a greater portion of the returns.
High-Skill, Technical-Skilled Workers:
Finally, the computerization of the workplace has increased the demand for and opportunities of a distinct class of workers- the high-skilled, technical-skilled individuals. This group of workers include the people who create and maintain the new technologies being implemented in the work environment, those who develop, implement and repair the computer technology as well as those who act as consultants and give companies advice on how to maximize the benefits of newly acquired technology.
These individuals perhaps enjoy the most benefit out of the changing nature of the workplace. The increased use of technology in the work environment has increased their value, making them a highly regarded commodity in the workplace. Individuals who are computer literate and have significant technical skills are now in high demand. Having technical abilities is a huge advantage in the job market; companies would rather hire an individual who can administrate and work with computers instead of hiring two people to do both tasks. These workers receive higher pay and greater job stability. As the workplace becomes more and more computerized, the opportunities for this group of individuals can only increase.
The effects and consequences of the changing nature of work on individual workers can be summarized into three main points:
1) A dichotomy between workers has been created
With the introduction of new technology and the computerization of the workplace, low skill and middle management workers are finding themselves more and more expendable while high management workers and high-skilled workers are reaping the benefits. As the nature of work continues to change with the advent of new technology, this separation between the classes will continue to grow.
2) Work has become more technical-focused
Technical skills and abilities are in high demand. In order for the individual to find and maintain employment, it is imperative that the individual be trained in the use of the computer and other new technology. Survival and success in the workplace is now determined by this education and knowledge.
3) While the overall trend is marked by significant economic growth and prosperity, this progress has come at the expense of many individuals
Machines and computers have come to take the place of millions of laborers all over the world, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The increasing automatization of the workplace has led to unemployment figures that only look to escalate as the workplace continues to change; one Chinese Government official "warned that unemployment in the world's most populous nation could lead to 268 million by the turn of the century as Chinese industries modernize and automate." (Ellwood)