The public debate over the effect robots on jobs continues every day on radio talk shows, TV news, and academic research, to name a few. According to a study conducted by Pew Research in May, 2017, 77% of Americans think robots will take over many jobs in coming decades, but only 6% of U.S. adults say they have personally lost their job, or had their wages or hours reduced, because their employer replaced elements of their position with a machine, robot or computer program.* Perhaps the disparity is due to a perception promoted by media and academia that robots are taking our jobs and destroying our society. We have created a frenzy of concern about automation that the facts to do not prove out.
McKinsey Global Institute wrote an extensive report in December 2017 titled, Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a time of automation. The first key finding of the report states:
Automation technologies including artificial intelligence and robotics will generate significant benefits for users, businesses, and economies, lifting productivity and economic growth. The extent to which these technologies displace workers will depend on the pace of their development and adoption, economic growth, and growth in demand for work. Even as it causes declines in some occupations, automation will change many more—60 percent of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated. It will also create new occupations that do not exist today, much as technologies of the past have done.*
There is no denying that manufacturing jobs in the US have diminished, and partly because of robots. In a 2017 report on manufacturing jobs, CNN Money reported:
The glory days of manufacturing were the 1970s. Back then, over 19.5 million Americans earned their paycheck from factory work. It’s been a fairly steady decline ever since. Today only 12.4 million workers remain in the industry. *
However, during the same time period, U.S. manufacturing output rose steadily and is now at an all-time high. Because of robots, manufacturing is more profitable, manufacturing jobs are safer, the economy is stronger, and unemployment is at a record low. Robots took jobs away from manufacturing but those jobs were replaced by new jobs in other industries. This is the cycle of technology that we have seen with every new wave since the industrial revolution.
WHY TECHNOLOGY DOESN’T TAKE OUR JOBS
We have only to look at our own history since the dawn of the industrial revolution to see how innovation and technology change our jobs rather than take employment away.
- In 1900, 40% of the US population worked in agriculture; today the total is less than 2%. After the advent of the steam engine and industrial machines, the economy was dependent on factory jobs. Our society changed and we survived.
- Before the invention of the automobile, there were more jobs associated with horse and carriage trade – horses, horse upkeep including farriers, stables and feed. The automobile changed our society and our jobs. New businesses created new occupations in automotive factories and highway construction, as well as oil and gasoline industries.
- In the 1980’s, computers changed our offices. The fallout was a decrease in the number of administrative professionals employed by large companies. But McKinsey Global estimates that 15.8 million jobs were created due to computer technology.
- In more recent history, smart phones changed the way we communicate and access information. The App industry, with earning opportunities for small companies and start-ups, developed as a result of smart phones. Apple estimates that App developers have earned over $86 billion through their App Store alone.
If our history is any indication of how society will change with an increase in automation, we will adjust. A 1966 report by the US National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress stated, “The basic fact is that technology eliminates jobs, not work.” This is the truth we have seen over and over in the last 150 years. Technology changes demand for products, it creates new industries, and it initiates an increase in long-term productivity.
THE SIVER LINING: REPLACING THE SHORTAGE OF SKILLED LABOR
Many manufacturers nationwide are having a difficult time finding quality skilled workers. A case in point is the welding industry. Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the American Welding Society (AWS) estimates a welder shortage of 372,000 in the U.S. by 2026. By adding welding robots to their process, manufacturers reduce their need for hard-to-find welders and increase their ability to compete with overseas manufacturing. One welder trained as a robotic welding technician multiplies his productivity. Randall Ireland, Welding Specialist and Project Manager at KC Robotics, says, “Not only is the robot more efficient and faster, each time he programs a robot arm with a welding torch, he is cloning his knowledge.” Robots are not going take over the need for trained welders; you still need the expertise and skills of a welder to program the robot. Ireland says, “You can teach a welder how to program a robot but you can’t teach a robot programmer how to weld.” Replacing skilled labor with robotics not only makes good business sense, it fills a gap in our workforce and replaces dangerous jobs.
Throughout history, society has always benefited from the introduction of new technology. It does not come without challenges or problems. The transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society was not easy, but it was successful and necessary for our society to advance. Likewise, we must continue to embrace knowledge and advance new technology. Automation and robotics are here to stay. Our challenge is not to find ways to disrupt them but to think ahead and manage the risks associated with change before they become problems.
In summary, Americans feel threatened by automation and robotics, but history tells us this fear is ill-founded. We have every reason to believe that we will survive and prosper from the advancement of robotics in our society. Our workforce will adjust and we will be a happier, smarter and safer people. As the great philosopher, Captain Kirk from Star Trek once said, “You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown — only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”