ATM: Job killer or job maker?

by Gerri Willis

Last week, the president said one of the impediments to job creation in this country is the fact that machines are taking over functions that used to be accomplished by workers.

"There are structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers," the president said. "You see it when you go to the bank and use an ATM."

It sounds pretty logical, but if you take a close look at the numbers, they tell a different story. While it's true innovation in some manufacturing arenas have clearly cost some jobs over the last few decades - automated textile plants and robotic car assemblers come to mind-- the same isn't true for ATMs. Diebold, a U.S. company and the No. 1 maker of ATMs in this country employs 7,000 people at its Greensboro, N.C., plant where they also service and market the machines.

What's more, ATMs haven't resulted in either fewer bank employees or even fewer bank branches. While the number of ATMs more than doubled between 1998 and 2008, from 187,000 to 401,500, the number of bank tellers also rose from 560,000 to 600,500.

In reality, customers wanted both human bank branches and ATMs. Between 1992 and 2010, the total number of bank workers has risen from 1.8 million to 2 million. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation maintains that self service technology could contribute an additional $130 billion to the economy annually or $1,100 per US family were these technologies more widely available. Efficiencies introduced by these machines boost our productivity overall and that means good things ultimately, for both the country's economy and that of individual Americans.

Self-service gas stations, postal kiosks, self-pay parking - all of these innovations are ultimately good for our economy, not bad for it. Whether it was the steam engine or the semiconductors, new technology has been a boon to this country. To turn our backs on innovation, in my view, would be a mistake. Innovation is the engine of jobs, ultimately. I worry that we don't have enough break-though ideas coming from the private sector, not that we have too many.