Technological Change and Employment: Some Results from BLS Research

By Mark, Jerome A. | Monthly Labor Review, April 1987 | Go to article overview

Technological Change and Employment: Some Results from BLS Research


Mark, Jerome A., Monthly Labor Review


Technological change and employment: some results from BLS research

Technological change and its impact on the work force have become a focus of attention in the United States and abroad. The innovations include advanced communication systems, industrial robots, flexible manufacturing systems, computer-assisted design (CAD), and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM). These modern technologies incorporate powerful and low-cost microelectronic devices that have the potential to increase productivity in office and factory production tasks. They share widespread appeal and are being diffused throughout the world.

There are, however, conflicting views about the implications of changing technology for employment. Some experts say that the pace of technological change is accelerating and that thousands of workers in plants and offices are affected as laborsaving innovations are diffused more widely. These experts contend that recent innovations represent a sharp departure from earlier changes, and that techniques for maintaining job security will be essential. Other analysts assert that technological change is beneficial for all groups in our society, that the changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature, and that technology ultimately creates more jobs than it eliminates.

Concern about changing technology has been continual over our history--usually increasing during periods of higher-than-average unemployment, and abating somewhat when the economy and employment are expanding. Consequently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been studying technological change and its impact on the work force for a long time.

Assessing the impact of technology is very complex. Technological changes interact with, and are affected by, changes in output, consumption patterns, international competition, and other factors, and the relationship between changing technology and employment is by no means clear. Although the Bureau's technology studies do not provide comprehensive answers about any relationship, they do yield some useful insights. This article reports on some of the findings of these studies.

BLS research on technological change

In the mid-1950's, in response to concern about the implications of developments classified under the general term "automation,' BLS began an intensive evaluation of the likely effects of the diffusion of electronic computers and other changes. To explore the impact of these emerging technologies on productivity, employment, job skills, and labor-management relations, the Bureau conducted a series of plant-level case studies in industries such as petroleum refining and electronics.

Currently, the program's focus is the preparation of a series of industry technology outlook reports which describe the types of changes gaining importance in key industries, explore the prospects for their further diffusion over the next decade, and analyze their impact on productivity, employment, occupational requirements, and labor-management relations.

A total of 35 industry reports, covering a cross-section of the economy, are available in the most recent series. The reports include industries such as motor vehicle manufacturing and telephone communications where the pace of change is rapid, as well as industries such as bakery products where change is slow.1 These industry reports are based on visits to leading firms, interviews with company and union officials and suppliers of new technologies, and a review of a variety of published sources.

In addition to these reports, the Bureau conducts in-depth studies of major technologies that cut across industry lines. The impact of the introduction of computer-process control in six major industries, including steel and petroleum refining, was one of the innovations examined.2

These studies of major innovations that affect a number of industries are based primarily on intensive interviews with plant managers, technicians, affected employees, union officials, and others. …

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