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Automation WILL create more jobs in the printing industry than it eliminates.

Keith McMurtrie
18/02/19 13:00

 Often when I’m presenting an automation topic to people, some of them get a bit twitchy and think: “There goes my job”.  And I wanted to address this, because I personally don’t believe this is true. Here’s why….

Last year, I delivered a webinar about automation in conjunction with Print Week. About a week after that, Print Week published an article with figures from the World Economic Forum stating that automation will displace 75 million jobs by 2022 but create an additional 133 million jobs. The article caused quite a stir and you might have seen the debate that then ensued in the comments section of that page (you can read it here if not). It prompted someone to say that: “There is zero chance that increased automation in the printing industry will create more net jobs in print”.

Is this true?

Machines are replacing human toil

I’d like to direct you to a fantastic TED talk by American Economist David Autor entitled ‘Will automation take away all our jobs?’. You can check it out here but I’ll summarise the relevant points in this article.

Many of the inventions in the last couple of hundred years have been designed to replace inconsistent human handiwork with fast, error-free machine perfection. Computers are a perfect example of this, as are engineered production lines and of course - tractors.  In fact, in 1900 (not long after the tractor was first invented) 40% of all US employment was on farms, but today it’s less than 2%.

But there are more jobs than ever.

And yet despite this, the number of adults employed in the US labour market has actually risen since 1890 and has risen every decade in the hundred and odd years since then.

So this poses a paradox – if automation causes people to lose their jobs, then why are there still so many of them?

Automation in the banking industry

Autor uses a really interesting fact to shed some light on this – since the introduction of the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) about 45 years ago, the number of human bank tellers in the US has roughly doubled from about ¼ million to ½ million in that same time period, with over 100,000 added since the year 2000.   And yes, we have seen a trend towards branch closures of late but that’s a different story; banking is going through another technological evolution as more and more people bank online and pay by card.

But with regards to the introduction of ATMs, if these were designed to dispense cash more efficiently than humans, then why did the number of branches increase?

Autor goes on to say that banks apparently found that installing ATMs actually made it cheaper to open new branches. And as the number of branches increased, so too did the number of human tellers. But - crucially - the tellers themselves ended up delivering a very different role. With automation replacing the dispensing of cash, the modern-day teller is freed of that routine work and is now delivering a more customer focused role. Forging relationships, solving customer problems and effectively becoming sales people for the banks as they introduce customers to new products.

Basically, what we’re saying here is that automation did not reduce the amount of jobs in the banking industry – it increased them!

Automation in the printing industry

Coming back to that Print Week article… The commenter I mentioned above wasn’t disputing that automation wouldn’t create more net jobs in total, just that this wouldn’t happen in the printing industry.

So is this true? Will automating print have the same effect on our industry as the tractor? Or will it be more like the ATM?

It’s all down to customer experience

Well it’s clear to me that there is a big difference between the farming industry and the banking industry in this regard. A farming business is part of a long and complex supply chain that rarely sees the farmer dealing with the end consumer. There are a lot of other companies involved in between e.g. food processing plants, storage facilities, food manufacturers, distributors and retailers. So freeing up farm labourers from mundane repetitive tasks is not typically going to deliver an opportunity to evolve that labouring role into something customer facing.

The banking industry is not like that. Banks are customer focused organisations and clearly understand the importance of delivering a positive experience. And they have been very successful at using automation to free up time for their employees to deliver a better and more personal experience than they could before.

With regard to the recent trend of branch closures, does this mean that banking on a whole will see the number of jobs reduce?  I doubt it.  All of these new online services will require different people involved to make them happen. To make the technology work.  To be available to speak to on the phone etc.  Take a look at First Direct, the independently rated no. 1 bank – they have no branches but I’m sure they have plenty of people!

It’s clear that the printing industry is much more closely aligned to the banking industry than the farming industry in this way, and as such we have the same opportunities to use automation to grow our businesses.

Reinvesting the money saved from automation

I can’t imagine there are many companies out there that don’t want to grow and be more successful, I certainly haven’t met any.  So it’s unlikely that the boss of a company who has worked hard to make an automation project successful is going to say “Right, we’ve saved £20,000 a year because of that, let’s stick it in the bank”. It’s much more likely that any savings made from automation projects will be reinvested and used to further grow the business. This is certainly what we’re seeing at the printing companies that we visit.  For example, companies employing additional technology staff, senior CTO roles and positions such as, ‘Systems and Automation’. 

But the number of printing companies is decreasing isn’t it?

It’s true that the number of printing companies is still on the decline, from 10,500 in 2010 to 8,400 in 2017. But the average number of employees per company has increased in that time period too – from 13.3 employees to 13.8 employees, according to the BPIF. A fact that supports the above example, and what we’re seeing out in the real world.

So is there zero chance that increased automation in the printing industry will create more net jobs in print?

The number of printing companies may continue to decline. But this can’t be down to automation - we’re just not seeing printing companies adopt automation to the point where it would have that kind of impact yet. 

And in fact what we are seeing among those printing companies who have embraced automation, is something very different. These printers are evolving into technology companies who also sell print, so that they’re able to meet the demands of the modern-day customer – shorter runs, faster turnaround times, real-time updates, self-service portals, data processing, website development, mobile apps, augmented reality and so on, as well as demanding an exceptional experience.  And all this added value stuff is actually increasing the headcount.  

Alright so there may be less inky fingered shop floor roles going forward, but those roles will evolve in their own way to help the printing industry deliver innovative print along with innovative production techniques and the exceptional experience that the modern customer demands.

Our industry is evolving.

Consider this point of view – it’s not automation that is shrinking the industry, it’s the world’s attitude to the printed product.  The changing digital world that we live in has reduced the demand for traditional print. And if anything, technology and automation are helping printers to not only survive this change, but to embrace it and evolve our industry.

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