How Robotic Automation is Changing the Job Market

Anthony Melanson  -  Apr 13, 2017

robotics and job growthIf you have a few hours to spare, try searching the internet for “robots and employment.” You’ll be inundated by a plethora of articles and conflicting opinions on whether robotic automation spells certain doom or great opportunity for American workers. A few things are crystal clear:  increasing automation is a reality, automation is changing how people perform their jobs and it will change the kinds of jobs people perform in the future.

Taking Chicken Little’s view that “the sky is falling,” here’s a recent CNN headline: “Millions of workers around the world are at risk of losing their jobs to robots — but Americans should be particularly worried.” Not to be outdone, Fortune chimes in: “Robots Could Steal 40% of US jobs by 2030.”  These are the sorts of headlines that certainly grab the attention of the reader and in this sense the writers are doing their jobs.

Both organizations are referring to a March 2017 PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) report on the economic outlook for the United Kingdom:  “Consumer spending prospects and the impact of automation on jobs.”  As it examines the impact on the UK, PwC reports that 38% of US jobs are at “high risk” for automation by 2030, but then concludes, “However, in practice, not all of these jobs may actually be automated for a variety of economic, legal and regulatory reasons. Furthermore new automation technologies in areas like AI and robotics will both create some totally new jobs in the digital technology area and, through productivity gains, generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of existing kinds…”

Sharing Chicken Little’s perspective, but with a new twist, the International Bar Association has produced a 120-page report, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Their Impact on the Workplace,  on the legal implications of rapid technological change. The Guardian summarized the report this way: “Innovation in artificial intelligence and robotics could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers, upend traditional working practices and pose novel dilemmas for insuring driverless cars…” It goes on to say that the survey suggests that a third of graduate level jobs around the world may eventually be replaced by machines or software.

Robotic Automation as an Enabler of Growth

Thankfully, there are alternative views of how robotics will impact our industries. The overwhelming conclusion of industry experts is that automation doesn’t spell the end of gainful employment for humans, but rather, the improvement of employment opportunities.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research’s (Cebr) March 2017 report, “Will post-Brexit Britain hinder a robo-revolution?” concludes that  there is a positive relationship between robotics automation and economic development and also between robotics density ( the number of robot units per millions of hours worked) and labor productivity.

“There is clear evidence that points towards robotic automation in many cases being a complement for human labour, rather than a direct substitute. As more mundane tasks are automated, human effort becomes more valuable as it is focused on higher-level tasks, creativity, know-how and thinking,” says  David Whitaker, Managing Economist at Cebr.  “Robots are about productivity, they don’t do creativity very well, and they don’t do things that involve failure, which is at the core of any design process.”  

This shift is moving away from jobs often described as “dull, dirty or dangerous” and has been the experience of at Continental Automotive Systems, which has deployed Aethon’s TUG robot in its manufacturing facilities. Eric Cowan explains:  “We have two people per shift – and we’re a four shift operation – who were transporting material as the bulk of their job. Now that the TUG’s doing it, they can do more critical thinking tasks — more difficult things that are suited for people – and the TUG can take care of the transport. They are freed up to do more value-added work.”

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt shares the common belief that automation improves prospects for American workers.  “This vision of the ‘war of the robots’ happening in the short term, that’s more of a Silicon Valley vision than the real world. Robots are making Americans richer.  Businesses can only pay workers more if they become more productive, and automation allows humans to focus on more valuable tasks.”

Aethon attended the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute’s kickoff meeting this week in Pittsburgh.  We had the opportunity to team up with over 150 people from a wide variety of backgrounds including universities, industry, and commercial robot equipment and software companies.  Even Mayor Bill Peduto showed up.  The center’s charter is to help raise the competitiveness of American manufacturing through advanced automation and robotics with the goal of empowering US manufacturers to compete with lower wage production centers, create and sustain new jobs to secure national prosperity and lower the barriers of adoption for robotic technology for businesses of all sizes. It was obvious in the discussions and road mapping sessions over the two days that tremendous opportunities exist to improve cycle time, safety, flexibility, and quality across a multitude of industries.  One of the speakers early on the first day was John O’Leary who is a Vice President and General Manager in charge of Americas Engineering for Airbus.  His comment was they have an 8 year backlog of aircraft to produce.  They are looking ways to shorten the cycle time down anywhere and everywhere.  This is a view of expanding opportunity (rather than shrinking) and they believe that robots and automation can help them capitalize upon that opportunity.

More Automation Means More, Better Jobs

In an article discussing the labor shortage in US manufacturing, Forbes reports that The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte concluded that 22% of skilled manufacturing workers (2.7 million employees) are retiring over the next decade. Industry growth means companies will need to add another 700,000 skilled employees, yielding a total of 3.4 million workers. Due to a variety of factors, reports Forbes, the industry is projected to fall 2.0 million workers short of its needs.

Forbes identifies the causes of the growing shortfall as:

  • an education system that produces too few graduates grounded in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines;
  • manufacturing’s reputation that they don’t offer clean and progressive workplaces;
  • an under-appreciation of the favorable wages in U.S. manufacturing (averaging about $77,500/year), and of the innovative, sophisticated and global nature of the work.

Potential answers to the manufacturing labor shortage are revealed in a white paper just released at Automate 2017 in Chicago.  The Association for Advancing Automation’s (A3) report, “Work in the Automation Age: Sustainable Careers Today and Into the Future,” examines the impact of automation technologies on the evolving job market, the transformation of job requirements, and the growing shortage of workers trained in advanced technologies.  The report offers five conclusions:

  • Increased automation leads to more jobs. As employers add automation technologies such as robots, job titles and tasks are changing, but the number of jobs continues to rise.
  • Tomorrow’s jobs require skilled employees. Skilled workers are key to companies’ success and countries’ economic development, but studies show an increasing skills gap.
  • Changing job titles reflect changing tasks. In the automation age, as in the computer age before it, job titles shift to reflect the impact of technology. A recent study concluded that occupations that have 10% more new job titles grow 5% faster.
  • Supply and demand is driving wage increases. In the manufacturing industry, the skills gap is driving up what are already strong wages and benefits, well over the US average.
  • Innovative training can bridge the skills gap. Employers are offering innovative training approaches that give workers alternatives to the traditional high-school-to-college-to-job route.

While the Chicken Little fable has been given a variety of endings over the centuries, the truth of the matter is that the small fowl was hit on the head by acorn — not the sky — and the world was not coming to an end. Likewise, the rise of automation in numerous industries is not the cause for hysteria, but rather, an opportunity to reexamine how we do business, capitalize on the opportunities before us, and create more meaningful, productive careers for employees. Similarly to the rise of computer age before this, there is increasing evidence that robots will improve our jobs, not take them.  Yes, it will change our jobs too and employers and educators have a part to equip people with the necessary skills.  By combining automation technology with advancements in skills, tomorrow’s jobs may likely be more prevalent and rewarding than ever before.