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Automation in the Workplace: Barriers, Impact on the Work Force, and the Federal Role

Published: Jun 23, 1982. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 1982.
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Comments given before a House subcommittee presented the view that automation can be an important factor in productivity improvement, although rapid, widescale adoption of automation may exacerbate such problems as labor displacement, skill shortages, geographic dislocations, and labor-management bargaining. While the private sector may assume primary responsibility for developing and implementing automation technology, the Federal Government will probably continue to play some role by developing policies and programs to encourage continued growth in automation and to address related employment problems. The U.S. lag in implementing automation in comparison with other industrial nations is in part reflected in the Nation's declining productivity. The barriers to more rapid implementation of automated technologies include: (1) technical barriers which are encountered in getting automated equipment to work; (2) financial barriers which arise from the necessity to invest in new capital equipment such as automated devices; and (3) social barriers which are based on human resistance to change. Despite these barriers, current national economic problems stimulate both development and use of automation technology. Recently published predictions have cited the potential loss of millions of jobs in the manufacturing sector because of the use of robotics. At the same time, new and existing occupations are expected to increase because of the advent and diffusion of automation. Federal efforts to encourage automation include: (1) financial incentives for private sector action; (2) research responsibilities; (3) technology transfer mechanisms; (4) support of engineering education; and (5) the development of standards to facilitate integration of diverse components of automation systems. No current Federal programs are aimed specifically at resolving the problems of unemployment caused by automation, including training in the necessary technical skills. GAO believes that there is a need for an overall plan to guide Federal policies and programs related to automation.

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