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Robots: Cause of, and Solution to, All Job Problems

Oct. 13, 2015
A new report says it's found a positive relationship between jobs and robots. But is your job still safe?
A new report says it's found a positive relationship between jobs and robots. But is your job still safe?

Are you afraid about a robot taking your job? That you’ll go from the production line to the unemployment line? Before you grab a fire ax and go all Blade Runner on your company’s automated tech, take a look at the latest white paper from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

The report, called “Robots Fuel the Next Wave of U.S. Productivity and Job Growth,” postulates that since 1996, there may be a positive relationship between U.S. (nonfarm) employment and industrial robot shipments.

As the graph (from the report) below shows, the peaks and valleys of robot sales over the last two decades mirror that of employment:

As jobs go up, so do the amount of robots working in factories. When unemployment goes up, robot shipments drop.

This is a far sunnier take than the foreboding reports that read like the beginning of dystopian teen lit trilogy.  One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research predicts 68% of high-tech jobs will be lost due to robots. Another from Oxford University predicts 47% of US jobs could be done by machines within the next two decades.

These prognostications are precisely why the A3 released its own report.

“Every week it seemed there was a new study, and every study said robots are killing jobs,” A3 president Jeff Burnstein says. “We said, ‘Gosh that’s not what we hear.’ We hear from business owners that robots are saving jobs, helping them grow their business and create new jobs.”
The trade organization had plenty of anecdotal evidence, and now has statistical evidence to support their theory. Burnstein admits the reason job and robot growth parallel each other isn’t readily understood.

“There may not be causation, but clearly it’s not the opposite,” he says. “Robots are not job killers.”

The automation expert with more than 30 years of experience has identified the real culprits: “Outsourcing and the inability to compete, those are the killers.”

Those two factors may been avoided, and America’s manufacturing fire never extinguished, if not for a few poor decisions made by America itself 36 years ago.

Manufacturing Murder Mystery

The U.S. manufacturing workforce was at an all-time high in 1979. The 19.5 million jobs accounted for 18% of the civilian labor force. Business was booming in Detroit, where the Big Three, Chrysler, GM and Ford, were rocking out Trans Ams and Cadillacs at a staggering pace.

A political insurrection 6,000 miles changed all that. Ayatollah Khomeini usurped control of the Iranian government. The supply of crude oil fueling the gas-guzzling behemoths receded from a steady flow to a trickle.

Car sales for Chrysler, GM and Ford dropped 37% from 1978 to 1982. Meanwhile, Japan’s small, fuel-efficient offerings from Datsun, Honda and Toyota rose 29% over that period.

Death didn’t come quickly, but lingered like poison. Burnstein, a native of the Motor City, witnessed first-hand what followed in America’s manufacturing capital.

“It hollowed out the city. Nobody was working in restaurants, bowling alleys, dry cleaners: the things that make a community a community. It was a spiral that led to housing declines and school declines that led to the bankruptcy.”

Cities across the Midwest began suffer economic entropy over the next decade, from Flint to Pittsburgh. The Rust Belt hung from America’s midsection like a heavy, decaying albatross. A new millennium and new technology did nothing to revitalize America’s manufacturing industry, which lost jobs for 43 straight months, from August 2000 to February 2004, a streak that had not been seen since the Great Depression.

Even after a recent resurgence, manufacturing directly employs only 12 million Americans, or 9% of the workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

Even if you don’t work in the industry, this is huge. “For each manufacturing job, six others are created,” Burnstein says. “There’s a big multiplier effect in economy.”

The frustrating thing is there was an antidote. Manufacturing never had to die here, Burnstein argues. The decline could have been mitigated if America turned to automation. “In 1979, robot manufacturers had trouble getting America to adopt the technology,” he recalls, “while Japan embraced automation.”

While there is plenty of blame to go around, Burnstein believes it was more a collective failure of risk-averse American companies, businesses who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, spend the time and resources to figure out the initial complexities.
“A number of those jobs could have been saved if they would have invested in automation instead of shutting it down and chasing low cost labor,” Burnstein asserts. “

Deus Ex Machina

If you look at movies in the 1980s, which reflected the sentiment of the times, you’ll see robots as the enemy way more than outsourcing. Maybe Johnny 5 from "Short Circuit" was the lone exception, and he was annoying enough to make you wish for the T-800. The fear may stem from robots' potential to be humanity's stronger, smarter, more durable doppelgangers, rendering us obsolete. That’s scary.

Although unrealistic. Burnstein notes that robots have been around for 54 years and the most successful commercial one has been the Roomba.

Outsourcing was the clear and present danger back then, but was it taken seriously enough?

If your dad worked in a steel mill, and just got laid off, here’s what you may have thought about outsourcing:

Even if some unpatriotic, greedy companies moved operations abroad to exploit non-existent fair labor practices, the companies who stayed would show the true meaning of capitalism, right? Better made, or rather, American made, products would ultimately succeed. The market would surely reject the inferior Asian junk and the jobs would return. Right?

If that were true, manufacturing jobs wouldn’t still be half what they were at the apex.

“A lot of what happened in the 80s, cars just weren’t that good,” Burnstein explains. “If they used more automation, they would have had better products.”

That kind of makes us look like Neanderthals, using blunt tools while sharpened stones were all the rage.

“Robots are a tool to improve productivity, speed and quality,” Burnstein says. “Quality is the big differentiator between who is winning at business and who isn’t.”

Honda's ASIMO

And the key to better quality is automation, the robot advocate believes, pointing out, “the Chinese recognize this and investing heavily.”

The important thing to note is why China is now investing heavily. The Chinese workers want to get paid fair wages. And their workers don’t want the tedious, sometimes dangerous tasks a robot could do faster and cheaper.

As the paper points out: “Productivity-adjusted wages in 2005 were five times better in China than in the United States, but is projected to be only half that in 2015.”

The US still has competitive prices, and by finally embracing automation, has competitive quality.
Even the steel industry has seen some signs of life.

On his company’s blog, Drew Greenblatt, CEO and owner ofMarlin Steel, writes : “Not only has changing over to an automated production process saved our company from the threat of bankruptcy, saving the jobs of everyone here, it has allowed us to expand our work force. Since going automated, Marlin Steel has nearly doubled the size of the work force, adding engineers and automated production specialists to our existing team.”

Maybe there’s hope yet.

The More Things Change…

“I’m really worried about this,” said Vivek Wadhwa, author and brain at the think tank Singularity University, to "International Business Times." “In the long term, I see no role for human beings.”

From self-driving cars replacing Uber drivers to the da Vinci Surgical System taking the place of doctors, we’re all done for in the next 15 years, Wadhwa alleges.

“That’s silly,” Burnstein responds to such notions.“I think more of the truth is that there will be collaborative robots. We'll be working with them. What would be gained from companies making things and no body having a job to buy it? I don't see that future.”

Top: 20th Century Fox / Bottom: da Vinci Surgery

Burnstein says reports like the Oxford study, which says nearly half of current jobs could be automated, aren’t completely wrong – just misleading. “It doesn’t mean 50% of the people won’t have any jobs, it means they might have different jobs, he says. “This has always been the case. We used to have horse and buggy drivers and elevator operators.”

Countries such as Germany are going all in with apprenticeships over college degrees. And the on-the-job training is heavily immersed in robotics.
“In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws,” one teacher relayed to “The Atlantic” in a 2014 article. “We don’t need workers for that. What we need are people who can solve problems.”

One thing for certain is that the world will always have problems. The new one for America isn’t if and when robots are going to take your job.

The more immediate question, Burnstein says is: “How do we get people who are equipped to do the jobs today that we need?”

For answers to this question and more, stay tuned to New Equipment Digest’s special coverage of the robots all this week.