Are robots taking our jobs?
Artificial intelligence and robotics are transforming the way people work — not only in manufacturing but across industries. What does that mean for the workforce of the future, not to mention workers today?
In many ways, artificial intelligence (AI) can feel like a complicated, even mysterious, technology. But, experts point out, it’s rooted in logic. Machines “learn” much like people do: They gather data and adjust their decision making as predictable patterns emerge over time.
We see the evidence of machine learning everywhere. Satellite navigation gets us where we want to go. Online stores recommend products to us based on past purchases. Chatbots answer our basic customer service requests. While the technology is poised to make everyday life simpler and more convenient, to many of us, the increasing capability of machines to handle routine tasks — and make the jobs of humans obsolete — is a growing concern.
Not everyone feels this way. To industry experts, AI and robotics are the solutions to a significant workforce issue — a persistent shortage of skilled workers. Nowhere is the shortage more evident than in manufacturing.
Ritch Ramey is the coordinator of RAMTEC at the Tri-Rivers Career Center, a vocational school in Marion, Ohio, that trains and certifies students to work with robotics. “The manufacturing workforce in the U.S. has a shortage of 2 million workers,” Ramey says. “People aren’t coming into the field quickly enough to replace older workers who are leaving. Companies have no choice but to automate if they’re going to grow.”
“People imagine that robots can do everything. But it’s very difficult to duplicate a person’s entire job.”
Tim DeGrasse, a California-based sales development manager for Danish robot manufacturer Universal Robots, says it isn’t just large manufacturers who are experiencing a labor shortage. His company also helps small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) implement robotics to help them increase production. “The labor shortage is a very big concern to SMEs,” he says. “They’re trying to hire people for everything from picking apples to testing semiconductor chips. And the competition for labor is fierce.
While robots can help resolve the labor shortage, DeGrasse insists they are not a replacement for human labor. He estimates that only 10 percent of jobs in manufacturing can be automated. “People imagine that robots can do everything,” he says. “But it’s very difficult to duplicate a person’s entire job.”
Redeploying Skilled Labor
Robots are best suited for tasks that are very repetitive — and monotonous for employees. Experts say using robotics to handle routine tasks frees up skilled human laborers for more challenging and fulfilling work, including programming robots to take on some of their work. “We have highly skilled welders who train robots to do the very simple, tedious parts of a welding job so they are free to focus on creative, value-add tasks,” DeGrasse says.
The need for human intervention doesn’t end once robots are in production. Ramey points out, “You have to have people who can program and repair robots. Robotics requires not only engineers to develop processes but maintenance technicians to solve problems in real time on the manufacturing floor.”
Training the New Workforce
RAMTEC students work with area employers such as Whirlpool and Honda to create work routines that use robotics. And it’s paying off for students and manufacturers alike. “One company told us, ‘We’ll hire your whole senior class,’” Ramey says. “Another told us they need 300 technicians over the next three years and they’re starting them at $26 an hour.”
RAMTEC’s biggest challenge? Training enough students. “We’re going to graduate 18 or 19 seniors this year — not enough to meet the need,” Ramey says.
“One company told us, ‘We’ll hire your whole senior class.’ Another told us they need 300 technicians over the next three years and they’re starting them at $26 an hour.”
Bob Graff oversees science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and workforce development for the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America, Inc. He says it’s not enough to train only in vocational schools and colleges. “We should have a continuing pathway for kids throughout their education,” he says. “We need to provide high-level, relevant curriculum that aligns to what the schools are teaching for STEM, starting in the lowest grades and continuing through high school then vocational school or college.” In addition, he says, organizations need to provide credit and noncredit training, apprenticeship programs and co-ops for existing workers, mapping to the skill sets industries need.
Educating and retraining workers for new jobs should be a priority of government, educational institutions and companies themselves, says Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO, FedEx Corp. “We know that education is the key to job growth,” he says. “Technology has eliminated some jobs but has added many more.”
Not a Hostile Takeover
While change can be unsettling, laborers have met other industrial advancements that made certain jobs obsolete — such as the Industrial Revolution or the advent of the assembly line — by reinventing the work they do. To DeGrasse, the introduction of robotics is just another evolution in the nature of work, and workers should view it as an opportunity for just such a reinvention. “The important thing to remember is that robots are tools,” he says. “Human beings have been using tools since the beginning of time.”
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