Man vs Machine
Dennie Quill, Columnist
On a recent trip overseas, I came to realise the rapid pace at which Man was being replaced by Machine. I noticed it first in the airport. Departing passengers were lined up in front of a machine for self-check-in instead of queuing up to be attended to by an agent. Of course, there were others who had checked in at home via the computer and arrived at the airport clutching their boarding passes.
Then, during my trip to a supermarket, I noticed that there were three machines for self-check-out, an automated system which guided customers through the process, including collecting money and issuing change.
My other experience with machines involved using a parking garage at a shopping mall. The motorist received a ticket from a machine on entering the five-storey garage. On preparing to leave the garage, the ticket is placed in the machine which calculates the amount to be paid. The motorist deposits the money in a machine and receives a receipt. On exiting the garage, the receipt is fed into a slot to release the barrier and the passenger drives through.
Rise of the machine
A common factor in all of these experiences is that the human element is either missing or substantially diminished, yet the transaction is conducted seamlessly and with great efficiency.
I estimated that in any equivalent parking lot in Jamaica, I would have encountered at least six security guards because we have a significant number of the workforce engaged in menial tasks such as lifting traffic barriers and patrolling parking lots.
The importance of mechanisation has long been recognised by modern farmers in developed nations who have gradually introduced machinery to supplement or sometimes complement labour in agricultural production. They have reaped rich rewards in increased production and productivity.
In our part of the world, we have been slow to embrace these developments, and agriculture continues to be a labour-intensive activity. To be fair, mechanisation requires huge capital investment, and not many are willing to take a chance on agriculture.
With the evolution of the computer, many people feared they would eventually lose their jobs to these sophisticated information-processing machines. Indeed, many have been replaced. I think of the local banking sector where scores of automated business machines have enabled customers to undertake a variety of transactions in a kiosk, never ever having to interact with a human being. In fact, many customers have not seen the inside of a bank for months, which must necessarily translate in a reduction of bank staff.
Other sectors will follow banking by becoming mechanised, and it seems to me that our country, which is already reeling from the negative effects of a high unemployment rate, should be thinking about investing in human-resource development. It might not happen immediately for us, but in the future, when machine starts replacing man at a fast pace, how will we cope? The fact is that machines will need to be serviced so a whole new industry will develop around maintenance of machinery.
I don't believe we should fear mechanisation. However, our workforce must be alert to future trends and be prepared to substitute muscle for brainpower. So when the machines and security cameras replace security guards, they should be trained to service these machines. If our workers do not upgrade their literacy and other skills, Jamaica will have to recruit workers to fill the manpower gap.