Embracing Automation

Keith McBride on February 22, 2018 in Demographics, Ec. Dev. Challenges, Workforce Development

Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that while most Americans are aware that manufacturing employment has decreased dramatically since 2000, most were unaware that American manufacturing output has increased significantly over that same time period.

The changing job market is a major issue for economic development nationwide, but even more-so a problem for Maine, where we don’t have enough of a “next generation” to take on the jobs from which our aging population is retiring, let alone one that’s prepared for the changes ahead.  This report from the Maine Dept. of Labor presents a somewhat harrowing look at the state’s workforce going forward, assuming that net migration trends continue.

The future job market will be severely disrupted by automation, which, I know, is not a new revelation.   The reality is that if a job can be done by a robot, it probably will be as soon as someone can make said robot.  Manufacturing is at the top of this list.  People will no longer make goods, machines will.  What’s left for humans is to manufacture these machines.  Where the manufacturing industry used to be dominated by low-education, “unskilled” labor, it will become the work of those highly skilled in mechanical engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and electronics.   (Full disclosure: I’ve paraphrased much of this from Chris Gibbons, an economic development professional and creator of the “Economic Gardening” system.)

It’s not all doom-and-gloom, though.  This reality presents some real money-making opportunities.  For example, we can already see that there will be a high-demand market for machines that increase efficiency, cut-costs and save time.  Savvy investors will find the innovators and companies poised to benefit from the demand for these machines (which doesn’t do much for the income gap or the lower & middle class … but at least it’s something.)

From an economic development standpoint, the next “Silicon Valley” boom is likely to take place somewhere where there is already a strong cluster of robotics firms and outstanding technical universities to supply them with workers.  (SPOILER ALERT:  It’s in Massachusetts,  which already has a top-notch robotics cluster.)

Also, a new article from the Harvard Business Review suggests that increased productivity from automation will create new jobs to replace those lost by 2030.  However, the challenge will be having employees who are skilled and ready to fill the roles demanded by the new, automated economy.  Automation doesn’t have to be a job-killer, and doesn’t have to be a dirty word; it’s simply a challenge which we must rise to meet.

The article suggests that government, private businesses, educational institutions and labor organizations all need to work together to make sure workers aren’t lost to the shifting tide.  Their recommendations should be page one for any long-term economic development strategy, so they’re worth summarizing, here:

  1.  Focus on job training and skills education.  They call for a partnership between automated companies (who are best positioned to know what skills will be needed) and public and private education institutions, who will need vision and funding to meet the demand.
  2. Use technology to make the labor force more fluid, which will make it easier for more companies to find the right employees from further away and easier for those employees to relocate to the jobs where they’re needed, or to telecommute.  The authors are somewhat vague on implementation, here, saying only that government, businesses, education and labor all need to cooperate to ensure that workers “have accurate forward-looking knowledge of the evolving mix of skill and experience requirements.”
  3. Re-evaluate systems for income and job transition support.  While they don’t say it specifically, I see this task falling on government, whose public safety nets like unemployment compensation have qualifications including job retraining) and on business/labor which can provide tuition/training reimbursements for workers seeking to continue their education and skills development.

The final bit of good news here, is that it’s easier to prepare for the future when you know what’s coming.