More robots, more jobs; fewer robots, fewer jobs

Think Again: Automation creates jobs: When more has been invested in robotics in the U.S., unemployment has fallen, and when less is invested in robots, unemployment has increased, said statistics cited by Association for Advancing Automation and others. See five tips for retaining millennials.

By Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media March 11, 2018

A positive correlation has been cited between robot investment and job creation, a nuance overlooked by most of mass media, which tends to favor sensationalist headlines like "robots are killing jobs," according to Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

Perceptions to the contrary run rampant, perhaps, in part, because the U.S. federal government spends less than other industrial nations on worker training and retraining for the increasingly digital, high-technology manufacturing workplace. Thus, when displacement does happen, it may create more pain than opportunities, but it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.

Automation, competitiveness

"Ask companies how many jobs they’d have if they hadn’t invested in automation," Burnstein suggested to the audience of automation industry leaders. (An anticipated 650 were expected to register for the A3 Business Forum in January, a new record, along with another of record growth in U.S. robotic investments.)

"Many manufacturers I ask say they’d have no jobs if they didn’t automate critical processes because they’d be out of business, unable to compete," Burnstein said, giving multiple examples. China, he said, is investing in robotics in record numbers because it wants to remain competitive on global markets as its labor costs rise.

When robot sales increase, unemployment falls; when robot sales fall unemployment increases, a trend that’s held from 2010 through 2016, the most recent year for which data was available.

Productivity is key to growth and competitiveness, Burnstein said, because greater profits bring more investments and more jobs.

Amazon invests highly in automation, with well more than 100,000 robots to date; the company plans to add 100,000 more jobs within 18 months, he said.

Further, technology always has changed the nature of jobs, Burnstein reminded the audience. As technologies were applied to farming, more food of higher quality was produced with fewer farmers, and people learned new jobs.

Focusing on fears, Burnstein said, takes attention away from opportunities. He added the U.S. skills gap is real and requires attention so workers can be reapplied in higher value areas. 

Applying talent in other areas

Accenture changed the nature of 17,000 jobs with technology applications. Those workers were retrained and reapplied in other positions, according to Natalie Pierce, attorney and co-chair robotics, artificial intelligence and automation industry practice group, Littler.

Pierce said we have to pay careful attention to how technology investments are outpacing training. While Germany and China invested heavily in robotics and other automation, they included worker retraining in their budgets. Proposed spending on U.S. worker retraining (administration budget) is less than the last budget cycle. Also, the U.S. Dept. of Labor 5-year strategic plan has no mention of robotics or artificial intelligence, according to Pierce. She made the comments as part of a panel discussion on the future of automation.

More qualified workers needed

As part of a global 2018 economic outlook and forecast at the meeting, Brian Beaulieu, principal at ITR Economics, noted the quit rate at U.S. companies is rising because labor is scarce. Robotics aren’t taking jobs away, he said. They’re being used because companies cannot find qualified people and need automation to stay in business, stay competitive, and grow.

Beaulieu predicted the skilled labor shortage will continue globally over the next 10 years, and "automation is going to ride that puppy." Repeatedly, he said he hears people cannot be found for many jobs; there’s no alternative but to automate to continue to grow.

To improve margins, Beaulieu said companies and their workers need investments in productivity tools such as automation. Because of the need to raise wages and keep talent, there will also be a need to raise prices to avoid eroding profits. 

Appealing to millennials

Beaulieu relayed some of his own experiences with millennials to help with job retention. ITR Economics has 52 employees at present; a majority are millennials, he said. Some advice:

1. Talk with them. They’re the smartest generation yet and have energy. They have idea after idea. They understand processes better. Generally, after three months, they’ll suggest a better way to do something. Respect, and listen to them. 

2. Work/life balance. They may not work the traditional 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at their desks. "They believe in this work/life balance crap. They are expensive, and they don’t work like we do. I had one tell me I was killing him; he worked 45 hours for two weeks in a row." [Laughter.]

3. Worker retention. If millennials have a sense they’re helping you change the world, you have a better chance at retaining them. Explain your vision and how they fit in. 

4. Feed them. Put out snack bowls. "We have lunch for our staff twice a month. Feed them. They may never leave now; they think I’m their dad," he added. [Laughter.]

5. Cultivate new leaders. By 2036, most baby boomers will be dead, which will help us out of the "decade of downturn that starts in 2030. Just try not to let the kids hurry you along," he advised. 

STEM: Schooled by a 10-year old

Since the demographics are worsening for engineering talent, companies have to find ways to excite youth about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions.

Jay Flores, global STEM ambassador for Rockwell Automation, said that action is required when children say: "’I’m just not a math person.’ When children have trouble tying their shoes, you don’t tell them to wear Velcro shoes the rest of their lives; you help them."

Similarly, we should help children with math, so can help design better planes or make better breakfast cereal, Flores said.

At the Rockwell Automation trade show (Automation Fair), at the "Engineering our Future" booth, a 10-year-old girl explained to Flores her robot for FIRST Robotics was named Tobor, because that’s robot spelled backward. Then she explained the function and use of an ultrasonic sensor in the robot, "More articulately than I did," after training on sensors, which was part of getting up to speed with Rockwell Automation.

Flores, 22, said, "I told her I wanted to be just like her when I grow up."

An estimated 500,000 students will be touched by FIRST Robotics this year. Flores said the goal isn’t to use kids to build robots, but to use robots to build kids that take on the challenges of the future. Flores added the finals will be in April in Houston and Detroit, and are free to the public to attend.

If you don’t think you have time to advocate for an automation transformation, think again about where we’ll be without a dynamic next generation of engineering leaders.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


This online version of this article is longer, with images, graphics, five tips on appealing to millennials and more on FIRST Robotics. Digital edition

Online extra: Author notes on jobs

Author notes: Burnstein also said two major mass media sources have refused to report the news that automation appears to be saving jobs, favoring more sensational messages to the contrary. As anecdotal evidence of the importance of jobs-related information and automation to A3, the word job appears 25 times in my conference notes in 2018. In my A3 notes from 2017, the word appeared 14 times. Disclosure: A3 is a Control Engineering content partner.

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