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Don’t be a Luddite and rage against the machine

The Luddites took up sledgehammers to destroy textile-weaving machines they feared were putting them out of a job in early 19th century northern England.

It was one of the first reported mass rages against the machine, as a skilled and well-paid gang of handloom operators protested against the introduction of automation that was threatening their livelihoods.

The Luddites’ increasingly violent action in cities like Nottingham led to the destruction of hundreds of textile-weaving machines, used in ever-bigger factories. They would often pre-warn the factory owners of their intended rage with letters signed off by King Ludd or General Ludd.

The Luddites named themselves after the mythical Ned Ludd, an apprentice who was beaten by his master and retaliated by destroying his work equipment.

This early introduction of automation – including wide-weave frames – into the textile industry 200 years ago had a profound impact on a workforce that feared being displaced.

However, amid the Luddites’ rage against the machine they failed to recognise a change in macroeconomic conditions that contributed greatly to their plight.

Principally, the Napoleonic Wars impacted England’s economy by depressing trade and affecting the Luddites’ customer base. Putting an even larger ladder in their stockings, Luddites were also oblivious to the fact the Wars had introduced men to trousers, at the expense of yesteryear’s must-wear silk stockings.

We will never know if some of the carnage across textile factories in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire could have been avoided if the factory owning entrepreneurs had engaged proactively with the hand-weavers and incorporated them into their future workplace plans.

But common sense tells you it might well have.

Two centuries on, many of the lessons of the Luddites Riots remain relevant.

Continuous introduction of the latest in automation in WA’s resources sector is often interpreted as machines taking over jobs that once only people could perform.

A focus on the mines of the future and remote operating centres alongside autonomous machinery and equipment has resulted in misperceptions that WA’s resources sector will one day be devoid of all site-based workers – with all action controlled from head office.

The application of super computers for data harvesting and the increased volume of conversations around the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) have added to the nervousness of a workforce already dealing with the vagaries of the commodities cycle – a cycle that at present is in subdued territory.

Too often our conversation espousing new technologies uses only the language of money – lower operating costs, efficiency gains, margin growth, reduced expenditure, improved returns on investment – at the expense of adequately addressing the impact on people.

The result is that employers are often portrayed as wanting to reduce jobs under the cloak of using technology to future-proof their business. On the other side the workforce is pigeon-holed for being modern-day Luddites for refusing to accept changing times and practices.

This is not to hide from the fact automation in the resources industry has led to the removal of thousands of jobs.

The workforce angst is very real and justified.

But automation has also created thousands of new and different jobs to complement, or even protect, a modernising work environment. It’s just that we hear fewer stories about this success.

Ask any of WA’s big resources players if they believe the automation journey is fully understood by the workforce and the broader community, and their candid answers may well surprise.

It was refreshing to see the strong engagement between resources sector leaders and thousands of school kids, in particular, at last week’s Resources Technology Showcase 2019 in Perth.

RTS 2019 was a perfect reminder of the truly world-class advances in automation at work in Western Australia in conjunction with – and because of – a highly skilled and engaged workforce.

And as conference attendees heard, most of tomorrow’s jobs don’t exist today so it is imperative the resources sector’s narrative about the future – driven by innovation – includes the next generation of workers.

There will always be a jobs migration from old to new skills sets as technology delivers a cheaper and safer way to perform increasingly commoditised roles in a competitive and profit-driven corporate landscape.

Jobs will be lost and people will need to be retrained as the macro environment changes and customer demands shift.

But it takes skilled people to get the best out of technological capability.

It is a story we need to get much better at telling.

Peter Klinger is Cannings Purple’s Director of Media Strategy and has provided strategic communications advice on more than $1 billion worth of corporate transactions over the past year. Peter is a former Business Editor of The West Australian and has also worked for The Times (London) and the Financial Review. Contact Peter

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Main photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash