The Impact of Microelectronics on Employment: Japan's Experience

By Bednarzik, Robert W. | Monthly Labor Review, September 1985 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Microelectronics on Employment: Japan's Experience


Bednarzik, Robert W., Monthly Labor Review


Spurred by both political and economic factors, Japan has achieved a position of clear preeminence in the production and consumption of robotic technology, including a comprehensive industrial program aimed at microelectronic development. The fact that output and consumption are 3 to 4 times the U.S. levels, a ratio that is expected to persist well into the 1980's, has led to the conclusion that the Japanese are roughly 5 years ahead of the United States in applying various kinds of microelectronic equipment.

In response to rapid innovations in the workplace, the Japanese Ministry of Labor surveyed several manufacturing firms to determine the impact of technology on workers. The study, entitled "The Relationship Between Technical Innovation and Labor," was made available to the U.S. Department of Labor through a cooperative program with the Japanese Ministry of Labor. This program and those with other countries encourages the sharing of information on labor-related issues that may be of mutual interest.

This report significant results of the survey which was designed to ascertain the impact of the changes brought about by the application and production of integrated circuitry (or microelectronics) referred to as IC equipment. Approximately 10,000 private manufacturing enterprises employing 100 or more workers were surveyed in November 1982. Actually, the sample includes nearly all Japanese manufacturing firms with 100 employees or more.

Of course, given social and cultural differences, each country may differ in adjusting to technological change, but the initial impact of the introduction may be very similar.

The increased use of computer-controlled machines and robots in U.S. factories has resulted in a rising concern of the impact that these new technologies will have on employment. Many believe that factory automation is necessary to help troubled U.S. manufacturers become more productive and competitive. However, there are adjustment costs associated with moving from the old to the new way of doing things. The extent of these costs is embodied in three issues put forth by a congressional examination of the spread of programmable automation in manufacturing. Will the new technologies put a significant number of people out of work? Will their introduction 'dehumanize' the work environment of those who remain? And how can the United States best prepare its education and training system to respond to the growing use of computerized manufacturing automation?

Until recently, there was relatively little concern in Japan about the impact of technological innovation on jobs and working conditions. Now, however, attitudes have shifted toward concern. The overall economic situation has deteriorated somewhat and technology is spreading from big to small businesses and from manufacturing to service industries.

Applications of microelectronics

The proportion of Japanese enterprises using IC equipment was 59.4 percent. Almost all large firms with 1,000 or more workers used such equipment, as did three-fourths of the medium-sized firms with 200-999 employees, and about half of the small firms with 100-199 workers. The vast majority of these firms (47.9 percent) were only users--not users as well as producers--of IC equipment.

The application of IC equipment in Japan is widespread among manufacturing industries. The proportion of usage is highest in the four machinery-related industries--general machinery, precision machinery, electric equipment, and transport equipment. Even in the textile, clothing, foodstuffs, and tobacco industries, IC equipment is used in around 40 percent of the firms.

The extent of usage also varied by manufacturing processes: Processing (changing raw materials) was nearly 90 percent automated, assembly and inspection each about 50 percent, and shipping around 30 percent. Application of IC equipment progressed from processing and inspection processes--many of which were implemented by 1974--to assembly, shipping, and other processes. …

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