During the past several years, much concern has been expressed aboutthe impact of automation on employment and on the economic and socialwell-being of workers. Historically, such concern has focused onworkers in factory jobs; now the impact of automation on the modernoffice is also being discussed. Some see the automation of the officeas a means of fostering economic growth and increasing productivity. Toothers, it means reduced employment opportunities and the possibility oflosing a job. Many view office automation as a recent phenomenon created solelyby the computer revolution.
This is a mistaken view, however. Officeshave traditionally utilized available technology. Just think of thedramatic changes brought about by the introduction of telephones, manualtypewriters, and adding machines.
In a sense, the rapid proliferation of computerized office equipment is the continuation of longstandingeforts to improve the tools used by office workers. Developments incomputer technology, however, have enabled designers to makeimprovements with bewildering speed. The rapid phase of office automation began in the late 1950’swith the development of mainframe computers. These large, centralizedcomputers had a major impact upon office work because they provided atool to process a large volume of information quickly and efficiently.
Payroll and billing accounts, for example, which require a great deal ofrepetitive work, could be updated rapidly by computers. The high costof mainframes, however, limited their use to large organizations, suchas government agencies, banks, and insurance companies. In the three decades since computers began to be used extensively,their impact fell most heavily on clerical workers. The automation ofclerical tasks slowed the growth of many occupations, such as file,bookkeeping, general office, and payroll clerk. But new occupationswere also being created; keypunch operator and computer operator werethe most visible examples in the clerical group. Overall, employment ofclerical workers grew almost twice as fast as the labor force between1962 and 1982 (see chart). The invention of the silicon chip and other recent advances inmicroelectronics technology, however, have led to the development ofsmaller, more flexible computers and related equipment and made possiblethe automation of many more office functions.
Furthermore, equipmentcosts have declined, allowing small firms to automate. As a result,there have been more widespread effects on the employment of clericalworkers. For example, many typists and secretaries now use wordprocessors instead of electric typewriters; their higher productivityhas moderated employment growth in these occupations. A similar slowdownin the employment growth of bank tellers has resulted from theproliferation of automated teller machines and the increased use ofelectronic funds transfer. The number of workers in some clericaloccupations has actually declined recently because of technologicaladvnaces. Optical scanners and the greater use of other terminals andpersonal computers permit the direct entry of data, bypassing thekeypunch operator and causing employment of these workers to fall.Computerized record systems have reducted the number of file clerks.And the employment of telephone operators has declined as electronicswitchboarding has been implemented.
Automation Pros and Cons A number of incentives exist for organizations to automate theiroffices. Many business owners and managers believe that the competitiveposition of their firm–and perhaps economic survival–depends upontheir ability to increase productivity rapidly. Many organizations alsohave identified mputerized operations as a way to expand and improveservice to their customers.
And pressures to automate tend to build asequipment costs decline and capabilities increase. While benefits can be dervied from automation, firms have notautomated to the extent possible ue to a variety of barriers. Presentlyno national standards exist for either hardware (equipment) or software(programs). This encourages manufacturers to differentiate theirproducts from those of competitors in order to increase the use of theirentire line of products. But incompatible equipment restricts theability of managers to integrate machinery into an office system.
Theincompatibility may be between the personal computers used byprofessionals and the central computer on which files are stored orbetween word processing equipment in different departments. Sometimesoffice equipment is poorly designed to meet user needs. Problems rangefrom complicated instruction manuals to furniture that cannot beadjusted to the user’s body. Financial barriers include the high cost of office systems anduncertainty about productivity gains. Because claims of increasedproductivity of managerial and professional workers are difficult tosubstantiate, some organizations have been reluctant to invest inequipment.
Social barriers to automation refer to people’s naturalresistance to change, fear of computers, and employee and union concernsabout job security, advancement opportunities, and working conditions.Many managers and professionals have been isolated from computers, andmany are uncomfortable with the new technology. According to manufacturers of office equipment, the most powerful executivesgenerally are the most likely to resist computers, perhaps because theyhave succeeded without them and don’t see the need for them. Manyindividuals and unions hesitate to accept automated office equipment forfear that it will reduce job security and eventually lead to layoffs andpoorer working conditions. Their concerns about working conditions seemto be justified by recent evidence.
Field studies conducted by theNational Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found thattime spent working at a visual display terminal (VDT) is correlated withhigh stress levels among clerical workers. Some evidence also links VDTuse to higher incidences of miscarriages and other prenatal complications. Researchers also point out that workers are concerned about thecomputer’s capability to monitor them, creating electronicsweatshops. Because maximum utilization of automated office equipmentis attained by working round the clock, workers fear they will be forcedinto shift work. Productivity increases permit parttime workers toreplace full-time employees, allowing employers to eliminate fringebenefits.
The development of more user-friendly systems could alsoresult in lowering the skills needed for some jobs. For example, manyword processing systems automatically indicate all misspelled words,relieving the operator of the responsibility of typing accurately. Asskills deteriorate, these workers may receive lower pay and have reducedprospects for upward mobility. In spite of the seriousness of these barriers, experts believe thatmany of them will be overcome during the 1980’s.
Technicalbarriers are expected to fall as national standards for hardware andsoftware rmulated and as manufacturers stress user-friendliness indesign. Financial barriers will fall as the costs of office systemscontinue to decline and as more employers become convinced thatproductivity increases are attainable. Problems related to workingconditions will not be as easily solved, although job securityguarantees and extensive training and retraining programs cansubstantially reduce organizational resistance to new technology. In alllikelihood, these issues will be high on the labor-managementnegotiating agenda in the years ahead. What the Future Holds Over the next decade, we will see continued improvements in thecapabilities of office equipment. Experts expect a shift in the focusof product development toward managerial and professional workers asmanufacturers continue to target this relatively untapped segment of themarket. Manufacturers also are working on new technologies. Forexample, many firms are developing voice data entry systems, in whichdata are entered by speaking into a microphone.
These systems cantranslate spoken words into a computer language that can be printed outin English. Artificial intelligence systems are also receiving a lot ofattention. One goal of artificial intelligence is to program computersto think as humans do. Manufacturers hope that these systems will beable to give expert advice on various situations and create programs forusers who do not know how to write programs. Of course, no one knows for sure how technology will affectemployment in the years ahead. Because microelectronic technology saveslabor, howeverS, employment in some occupations will very likely declineas functions are automated. Experts also agree that technology resultsin raspid employment growth in new occupations–computer specialties,for example. What is less clear is how these forces will interact.
Will increased productivity result in fewer available jobs or willbusiness expansion create even more demand for rkers? Many experts believe that the employment of clerical workers willdecline in relative importance as more small organizations use existingtechnology. For example, a report released by the Georgia Institute ofTechnology focuses on the impact of new technology upon clericalemployment in the banking and insurance industries. This study projectslittle or no growth through 1990, followed by a decline in employmentthrough the year 2000. In another study, Matthew Drennan of New YorkUniversity studied the effects of office automation in six officeindustries (banking, insurance carriers and brokers, securities, creditagencies, business services, and miscellaneous services).
He projectsthat clerical employment will grow only slightly through 1990, reversinga 20-year trend of much faster than average growth. The most recentstudy of this subject also points to a relative decline in clericalemployment. In their report on the study, which was conducted by theInstitute for Economic Analysis at New York University, the authorsconclude that although clerical employment will rise significantly bythe end of this century, it will decline noticeably as a proportion ofall workers. Projections developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics arefundamentally consistent with the findings of other researchers. In thelatest set of BLS employment projections, clerical employment isprojected to rise only moderately through the mid-1990’s andincrease slightly as a proportion of total employment. This representsa significant change from the 1962-82 period when the clerical share ofthe labor force rose from 14.8 percent to 18.6 percent.
Because there is fundamental agreement that employment in specificclerical occupations will decline with further automation, personsconsidering clerical jobs should take positive steps to insure theirfuture employability. Many experts believe that basic academic skillsmay be more important than technical skills that can become obsolete. Arecent report by a National Academy of Sciences committee supports thisview. Other studies have found that education levels and skillrequirements have not been affected by the use of new technology.
Employers can train workers for technical jobs, but only if they have astrong basic education. Adjusting to new technologies can be traumatic,but the change will be much easier for those who are properly prepared.