The Simple Economics of Technology and Jobs

By: | November 27, 2018 • 4 min read
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

When I was a child, I remember when the migrant farm workers would arrive every summer to work in the nearby bean fields. Those fields stayed, but the migrant workers stopped coming by the late 1960s, which I now realize was about the time that minimum wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act started being applied to farm labor.

This brings me to an interesting story by Miriam Jordan in the New York Times about new technology that is being introduced to farms, especially for those growing labor-intensive crops that have to be picked by hand. One of the most ingenious examples of this is a machine for cutting lettuce, a crop that is quite delicate and easily crushed by wheels and torn by blades. It cuts the lettuce with jets of water instead. Another is a robotic weeder that uses cameras and software to differentiate the crops being raised from plants that need to be ripped out.

It’s easy to attribute the rise of these machines to the genius of some tech wizard in their labs. It certainly looks whiz-bang compared to hand picking and weeding. But in fact, this equipment is not the result of any fundamental breakthrough in technology. It is progress in engineering, though: applying existing technology to a new and different problem, such as using image recognition to identify plants.

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Why is this coming now, and not sooner? Because it’s gotten more difficult to get agricultural laborers to do the unskilled work of picking and harvesting. These are not attractive jobs. The work is hard and is seasonal. And while minimum-wage requirements do apply to farm workers, there are lots of exemptions to wage-and-hour requirements. Overtime provisions do not apply, since farms that use less than 500 days of farm labor in a calendar quarter in the previous year are exempt. Most of the “hand labor” who pick crops can be paid piece rates instead.

Evidence suggests that the vast majority of agricultural labor has been—and still is—performed by undocumented workers, who don’t have many other options and are unlikely to report violations in the laws. It has gotten much more difficult to find those workers, while people with other options are not likely to be interested in this work.

It is not surprising that the agriculture industry has long resisted efforts to restrict immigration and crack down on illegal immigration. When that doesn’t work, necessity is the mother of invention and the market for solutions in the form of technology grows large enough that it is worth it for companies to figure out how to do the work with machines. These solutions are not perfect, but they are already pretty good, and they will get cheaper and better.

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