The Increasing Value of Hands-On Workers


The Increasing Value of Hands-On Workers


Manual Hands-On Labor is More Important Than Ever!


The industrial revolution started when businesses began using energy that wasn’t generated by people or animals. Although, historically, mankind has long used wind power (think windmills in Holland) as well as waterpower (the gristmill) for millennium, he mainly relied on human sweat to get things done.


With the advent of the steam engine, and soon after the discovery of electricity and its wide-spread use, the industrial revolution really took off. Automation was the catalyst. Electronics were the next major shift, followed swiftly by computing, robotics, and now, artificial intelligence (AI). 


If you do a Google search for job loss due to robotics, automation, AI, etc., you won’t be able to sift through the thousands of articles that are listed. Workers all over the world have, at one time or another, gone out on strike or found even more violent ways to protest real or perceived job loss due to the changes overtaking their industries.


With this as a starting point, where do we go from here? Is there any future for manual, hands-on work?


A recent article by Timothy B. Lee, published in Vox, makes the case that, in fact, this type of labor will be increasing in value significantly. As he writes “…our collective obsession with job-stealing robots can cause us to overestimate the impact of automation — and obscure an important point about the economy. In many service industries, human labor is a mark of luxury.

So, at the same time robots destroy manufacturing jobs, the demand for labor-intensive services is soaring.”


Even when increased automation is available, some companies are not willing to implement it – in fact, they are touting their lack of automation as a selling point. They know that their customers are seeking a more personal connection to the goods and services they are buying.


Labor-intensive services are the future of the US economy


For example, between 2014 and 2024, according to the US Labor Department's projections, service-oriented jobs which require hands-on labor are the fastest growing occupations.

At coffee shops, inefficiency is a mark of luxury

"Amid customer complaints that the Seattle-based coffee chain has reduced the fine art of coffee making to a mechanized process with all the romance of an assembly line, Starbucks baristas are being told to stop making multiple drinks at the same time," the Wall Street Journal reported in 2012.

Starbucks management understood something important about their business: People don't go to Starbucks simply to get a cup of coffee — after all, there are lots of cheaper and faster ways to get coffee. People go to Starbucks because they enjoy the experience. And that experience has an important performative dimension — customers want to feel like their barista devoted personal attention to preparing their cup.


The rise of Etsy is another example of our desire for individualization versus mass-production. 


Hands-on manual labor has led to the exponential rise in the number of small wineries and breweries in the US. The personal touch and often a tour of the facilities is a large part of the selling point for craft breweries.


It's logical to believe that many industries, such as manufacturing, will continue to automate in order to eliminate inefficiencies and increase profits. Additionally, hazardous jobs, such as fire-fighting, chemical handling, etc., will continue to benefit from technological advancements such as AI and robotics. 


However, service-related industries, especially in wealthier societies will continue to need workers who are not machines, but have, for lack of a better term, the "human touch". And consumers will be willing to pay for the personal touch offered by hands-on labor.