The American love-hate relationship with automation goes back for nearly two centuries. Take, for example, the "Ballad of John Henry." That song, written after the Civil War, describes an Industrial Age contest between a legendary railroad steel driver and his hammer, pitted against a steam-powered drill.
That tension between the human worker and their automated replacement remains today.
According to a new national survey by job-search site CareerBuilder, more than 20 percent of companies say they have "deskilled" workers, meaning replaced them with new technologies. That number rises to 30 percent when looking at companies with more than 500 employees.
Sometimes the trend towards automation can simply backfire. According to the survey, 35 percent of the companies that replaced employees with tech said they ended up hiring workers back, "because the technology didn't work out."
At the same time, nearly 70 percent of companies that have automated jobs said the new technologies also created new positions within their firms. In fact, 35 percent of the companies that deskilled workers said they ended up with more jobs after adopting technology.
The survey polled nearly 2,200 hiring managers and human resource professionals from across the country, representing a variety of industries and different-sized companies.
Examining federal labor data, CareerBuilder's research underscores how new technologies both create jobs while rendering other positions, some of which have been around for decades, suddenly obsolete. Of the 786 occupations recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one-third reported a decline in employment since 2002, while more than 60 percent grew by one percent or more.
"While some of the losses and gains can be attributed to economic cycles and globalization," CareerBuilder noted in a statement, "arguably automation has also had a significant influence on employment shifts."
As an example, the company mentions how the growth of Internet-based travel web sites negatively impacted travel agencies, which reportedly cut more than 38,000 jobs in the past 12 years. But during that same time period, the number of software developers and web developers in the U.S. increased by 195,000, and those IT jobs have salaries that pay more than double what a travel agent makes.
"Technological advancements have not only increased productivity, but historically have led to an expansion of employment," Matt Ferguson, CareerBuilder's CEO, said in a statement.
However, Ferguson added, the U.S. faces another major challenge in the near future, as it prepares its workforce for the expected and anticipated arrival of more knowledge-based jobs in robotics and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) -related fields.