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Covid-19 has brought the automation doomsayers out in full force and handed them plenty of ammo. In an attempt to minimize public health risks and cut down on costs, toll collectors in Pennsylvania have been replaced by license plate scanners, Bay Area hotels have introduced room-service robots and retail and fast-food jobs worldwide have gone the way of cashier-less transactions.
The pandemic, according to the automation skeptics, has accelerated our transition to a future state where robots have taken all our jobs. And they may be right. If history is any indication, its unlikely that humans will be working as toll collectors or cashiers once those jobs have been automated.
But it would be unfair and inaccurate to lump manufacturing in with this future state, as many have these past few months. Despite recent headlines (Robots are coming for you!) and reports like this one from McKinsey saying that manufacturing employment is one of the areas most vulnerable to automation in coming years, the fact of the matter is that the job losses from automation have largely already occurred in manufacturing. The thousands and thousands of vacant manufacturing jobs available today amid sky-high unemployment numbers represent just one proof point.
Rather than tainting manufacturing with the stain of a fully automated future, we should be encouraging those who have lost (or fear losing) jobs to automation in other sectors to look toward manufacturing. Meanwhile, the industry itself should focus on the real challenge training workers for the new, high-skilled jobs created by automation while embracing the technology investment that will keep U.S. industry competitive.
A Brief History Of Automation In Manufacturing
Theres no avoiding the fact that automation in manufacturing has, historically speaking, led to a decline in jobs. But thats not the whole story for in the long term, automation has also created new high-skilled, and highly paid, jobs for American workers.
I would know. I run an organization that consults for manufacturers. Our mission is to help them create new products, streamline operations, adopt new technologies and sell more of their products all to grow jobs in manufacturing. Yet for 35 years my organization has also helped manufacturers automate. Weve built machines that produce candy bars, auto parts, dog toys, military products and everything in between.
Youre absolutely correct if youre thinking, Isnt the purpose of automation to reduce costs by cutting headcount?Its true that we do the calculations of whether or not a new machine is worth the cost based on how much operator time it can reduce and how much quality it can increase. After all, its this technological advancement and investment that allows us to make more in the U.S. than we ever have before with 80% fewer people than we did 60 years ago.
But thats not the whole story. In the long term, automation has proven not to be a perfect correlate to fewer jobs. If the technology does what its supposed to, the business will ultimately grow and create new, high-skilled jobs for American workers. This has long been the case: Way back when, the automation of the cotton textile and primary steel industries led to rapid job growth (from roughly 1850 to 1950).
Whats more, the decline in manufacturing jobs in more recent history cant be chalked up solely to automation. Depending on whom you ask, its also the fault of lower overall output, shifting demographics and/or China.
Today, examples abound of companies who hire more workers by embracing automation. Utah-based Wing Enterprises invested in welding robot systems to meet rising demand; it helped them expand from 20 to 400 employees. Other manufacturers have invested in labor reinstating technologies, such as collaborative robots or IoT sensors that can provide maintenance mechanics with real-time data. Meanwhile, new research shows that companies investing heavily in AI have actually grown their workforces, and a recent survey of middle market manufacturers with annual growth rates of over 10% revealed that 45% said employment amid technology investment would stay the same; 28% said thered be an increase in jobs.
In other words, the future is already here for manufacturing. The mass exodus of low-skill, low-cost labor mostly to overseas competitors already happened.Those jobs are never coming back, and we dont want them to. Were not going back to paying people $1 an hour to sew or assemble.We want people managing technology that can do those simple tasks for us. We want people to realize that the very thing theyre fearing is what can make their jobs better.That is our future.
What Manufacturers Should Do Now
The real concern with automation is not job losses, but the long-term consequences of all this automation to our countrys wealth disparities.If manufacturing continues to automate (which is unstoppable), continues to get more productive (which it must) and continues to provide better-paying, higher-wage jobs for its people (which is a necessary outcome), then wealth disparity will increase.And people without manufacturing jobs, like those laid off as fast food is automated, will have even less.
This is true for any industry navigating automation, and unfortunately, there is no simple solution. One thing we can do today is try to get a diverse makeup of people into manufacturing now so that at least the wealth isnt concentrated in white-male-dominated suburbs as it has historically been
At the same time, though, we can drop the fearmongering about manufacturing job losses.In fact, we can focus more on getting people into manufacturing to solve the industrys number one issue: They cant find enough people.We have the opportunity today to create pipelines from low-skill, low-paid jobs to good career paths in manufacturing through awareness, education and training. Obstacles remain: For example, a recent Deloitte survey showed that nearly 60% of organizations introducing intelligent automation have yet to even gauge how much of their workforce has seen changes to roles, tasks and ways of working.
Despite the challenges ahead, I hope the next time someone writes about the threat of jobs being taken by automation, they leave manufacturing out of it and perhaps even suggest that those at risk of losing their jobs actually seek out manufacturing. Ironically, its because of automation that these are going to be good jobs for many, many years to come.
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