May 29, 2017

Technology and Jobs: More of One, Less of the Other?

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

A student and I were chatting in my office, and she mentioned that she had just applied for five jobs but was concerned about the interviews. I assumed that these interviews were in-person and face-to-face with another human being. She quickly corrected me and shared that these were virtual interviews, and how she found talking into the computer somewhat difficult.

The five jobs she applied for were all using an online platform that uses live and recorded video to prescreening candidate and conduct job interviews. Their Google ad specifically sells them as a way “to make [Human Resource]’s life easier.”

We have seen the changing workplace put a lot of humans out of work by replacing people with technology. Machines can certainly do some things more efficiently and safely than people, thus factory and machine production has extended into areas that make sense. However, the reach of the quest for profit has taken technology to places that we might never have anticipated.

What technologies are replacing people? In every industry, machines and software have replaced people: from power looms to self-scanning stations in stores, online purchasing for just about everything, smarter cars and soon-to-be driverless cars.

Every time my phone or computer gets weird and I have to re-boot it, I think, “driverless cars? Really?” This reminds me of the 1984 book Normal Accidents, in which sociologist Charles Perrow posits that the more complex systems become and the more interdependent they are, the more we should expect accidents. The 1979 event at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant disaster, was inspiration for this work.

Here are some examples of jobs that either no longer exist or are much fewer in number: Phone operators, bookstore and other retail workers, librarians, stenographers, typewriters (people, not the machine), typesetters, travel agents, secretaries, receptionists, computers (people, not the machine itself, see the film Hidden Figures for examples of computers at work), parking attendants, toll takers, milk men, gas station attendants. What else can you add to this list? HR personnel who do interviews?

What’s the big deal? How might a sociological perspective make sense of this change? You might be thinking, so all those occupations don’t exist or just have fewer people in them, so what?

I’m caught by the tag line, “built to make HR’s life easier.” This technology is not being marketed solely as for a tool that will help companies hire talented people; it is marketed as something that makes the work and workload of HR easier to deal with. Might such technological tools not result in fewer HR staff? As preliminary interviews are done virtually, by interacting with technology, not another person, then HR only has to deal with the later hiring stages, or perhaps, eventually, with none of the stage of the process.

The occupations listed above often require(d) skilled labor, and thus were often union protected from exploitation and received decent wages and benefits. With technology replacing most jobs in those occupations, the few remaining jobs have often gone part-time, without benefits, and has busted unions. In any case, most of those who spent time learning and developing those skills lost their livelihood.

Technology has created new job opportunities like Uber and Lyft drivers. But those jobs are less steady than the taxi-driver job and are certainly not unionized or paid well. In addition, the drivers use their own vehicles, not one dedicated for that particular job. The companies profit but the workers do not share in the profits.

With more technology getting in between the consumer or client and the company, there is more room for poorer service quality. Do we all have stories of waiting on a phone or trying to get something done but the number options take us in circles?

When companies use this new HR interviewing software to precreen and interview candiates, there could be more opportunities for covert discrimination. If the algorithms or other programming is set to screen out applicants because of particular qualities, such discrimination is covert and invisible – and less likely to be exposed and dealt with. While humans certainly have bias, so can computer programs, but humans may be less aware of the potential for bias.

For example, does technology make people more relaxed about the interview? Does it help them show their real selves? If they’ve watched a lot of reality TV, they might think they’re in a confessional where they should share their emotional baggage. Of course, that may be an attractive thing, depending on the employer! This might be detrimental for those who might feel more comfortable, but also act less professional, when participating in a video interview. Those who are older be at a disadvantage, as they might be less comfortable with answering questions a computer asks. Depending on the tasks for the desired job, this may or may not be a problem.

Besides the issues mentioned above, what else is potentially problematic? One thing that comes to mind for me: how will society deal with all the people who lose their occupations due to technology? Is it possible to create new livable occupations in numbers enough for society to stay viable?

Comments

Ms. Sally Raskoff,

I agree with your assertion that businesses across the United States are replacing American workers with "machines" and or with "Artificial Intelligence". It is scary because so many American born people are unemployed and continue to struggle. Many working-class Americans are still unemployed, even individuals with a four year college degree. I have acquired my Associate's and Bachelor's degree in Social Sciences. I am still unemployed! I had some success in securing a job interviews but haven't an offer for employment. It is disheartening and demoralizing. I have read many articles on the state of the Economy and Social Problems. I am disappointed that businesses and the Tech industry are trying to take away the American Dream from us. They have contributed an environment that makes it very or extremely difficult for the average American, even college educated, like myself, to get a simple job that requires no higher education. But many employers require too much so called "work experience" because they don't have the will to actually train people to do the job right. I have express my concerns to my elected government officials to discourage the tech industry from replacing the common people. I read a textbook in my Sociolofy of Deviance course and the authors stated that businesses care more about short-term profits rather than long term. The quality of customer service is very poor in companies that use machines rather than humans. We have to change the status-quo. Technology is dividing people apart and the quality of human relationships has but almost disappeared.

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