Automation report from 1958

Courtesy of the St. Louis Fed, you can download a report published in 1958 titled “Automation and Employment Opportunities for Office-Workers: A Report on the Effect of Electronic Computers on Employment of Clerical Workers, with a Special Report on Programmers.”

I teach students about data and software to prepare them to enter the hot field of business analytics. It has been a growing field for a few years, especially since the advent of “Big Data”. Something I explain in class is how brand-new technology has changed business.

Reading this report forced me to re-think just how new data analytics is. The authors saw machines in use for data processing and correctly predicted that this would be a dynamic source of new jobs.

The introduction states that millions of “clerical workers” were employed in the United States. That fact would have been obvious at the time, but today we might not realize just how many humans would be needed to store and fetch the files we access regularly on our computers. The creation of clerical jobs was especially important for women.

In view of the volume of work that needed to be done, installing new computers was economical. “A computer system can automatically do such jobs as prepare payrolls for thousands of employees, control inventory on a multitude of items…”

“Although computers are often described as machines that can “think,” that is, of course, not so. Like other machines, they must be operated or controlled by people… The people who prepare the instructions are called programmers.”

“Electronic computers were developed during World War II as an aid in solving intricate scientific and engineering problems such as gunfire control, but their application to the processing of office data is more recent. The Federal Government lead the way in 1951, when an electronic computer was installed by the Bureau of the Census…”

The authors see the primary role of computers in business as a way to automate the routine work that could be performed by clerks. Secondly, they state that computers can by used for solving complex math problems “such as those related to launching and tracking earth satellites.”

The report was created for young people who are considering their own choices for education and careers. The authors describe the programming but also various machine support roles. For example, the Coding Clerk’s job is to convert the programmers’ instructions into “machine language”.

The authors recognize that computers will replace some of the traditional clerk roles. “These developments will not only increase the output of clerical workers and slow down growth in clerical employment, but will also change the character of many jobs… Many of the new jobs … will generally pay better and require higher levels of skill and training than most other clerical jobs.” The next sentence is where the authors fail to predict PCs and the internet: “Moreover, a continued increase is expected in the number of officeworkers in jobs not greatly affected by office automation – for example, secretary, stenographer, messenger, receptionist, and others involving contacts with customers and the public.”

The discussion of women in the workplace is clinical in tone. Turnover is high in the clerical fields because many young women stop working when they get married or have children.

There is a special report on “programmers”, one of the newest occupations in the country. Programmers specialize in either of the following: 1) “processing the great masses of data which have to be handled in large business and government offices” 2) “solving scientific and engineering problems”.

The authors describe typical training and career paths. At the time, a college student could not major in computer science. Companies were filling most positions by selecting employees familiar with the subject matter and giving them training in programming. A few colleges purchased computers and provided some training opportunities.

The culture was different back then. “Although many employers recognize the ability of women to do programming, they are reluctant to pay for their training in view of the large proportion of women who stop working…” The authors tip off their female readers that they are more likely to get training in government than industry, if they aspire to be programmers in the 1950’s. Today, the risk and cost of training has largely shifted from the employer to the worker. If you are interested in the topic of bootcamps and STEM pipelines, read the document for their discussion of education.

These authors made a good long-term prediction because they anticipated the business analytics boom. “Continued expansion in employment of programmers is expected over the long run… In offices where the volume of recordkeeping is great, there will continue to be need to reduce the cost of processing tremendous amounts of data and to produce more timely reports on which management decision can be based.”   After explaining salary, they talk about perks: “Programmers usually work in well lighted, air-conditioned, modern offices. Employers make special efforts to provide better than average surroundings for programmers, so that they may concentrate to achieve the extreme accuracy necessary for programming.” The nap pods of Silicon Valley have a long history that can be traced back to the Census Bureau.

Andrew Weaver is Searching for the Skills Gap

Andrew Weaver is doing interesting work on “the skills gap.” One of his key methods is to create new data by interviewing firms. As someone who has looked hard for good data on the skills gap, I can say that we need more work like his.

Weaver’s 2017 paper with Paul Osterman is about data for U.S. manufacturing firms. These findings may or may not generalize perfectly outside of manufacturing, but I think this was a great place to start. There is plenty of talk about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and at least some of the talk was about a lack of skilled Americans to meet the great demand for high-tech doings. For this survey, they only ask about “core workers” who are doing the specialized roles of making widgets.  

Here are two important empirical questions:  a.) do American manufacturing firms want high-skill workers? b.) do they have trouble finding them? The authors answer, “not as much as you might think from policy discussions.”

There are lots of details in the paper that I don’t have time to cover. In table 2, they go over the determinants of a firm facing long-term vacancies. What is common among the (minority of) firms that report having long-term vacancies? Advanced computer proficiency is not associated with difficulty of filling jobs. The implication is that most manufacturing companies around 2017 were able to find workers who had the computer-related skills needed to do the core production tasks. What seemed to be a limiting factor was not computer skills but advanced reading skills. Half of the establishments surveyed said that they require workers with extended reading skills. That could mean, for example, reading a 10-page technical article in a trade journal.

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