Allentown Economic Development Corporation

Technology, artificial intelligence, and automation have collective impact on modern manufacturing and careers

As the famous song lyrics go “The times they are a changing,” and nowhere is that more evident than in modern manufacturing. Routine, repetitive tasks formerly done by humans have largely been taken over by machines thanks to technology, artificial intelligence, and robots.

But automation isn’t having as detrimental an impact on the U.S. workforce as many experts expected it might. If anything, there’s proof that automation is actually making better products at a more efficient rate, and leading to better jobs and quality of life for employees with advanced skill sets acquired through additional education and training. It’s a paradigm shift happening across the country and the world.

Technological advancements create fears

Over the past two-to-three decades as automation really came into its own, fears that manufacturing jobs held by humans would eventually be completely replaced by robots ran rampant. And while some low-skilled, low-wage jobs have been eliminated due in part to automation, new opportunities for those workers to be retrained in more advanced roles have emerged.

“Automation anxieties are hardly new, but each time those fears arose in the past, in the long run, technology innovations ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed,” according to a January 16, 2017 article for the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy entitled “AI, Automation, and the U.S. Economy.”

According to a Forbes Community Voice blog post for the Forbes Human Resources Council by Gene Zaino, “While automation has transformed and will continue to transform many industries, it largely redefines rather than eliminates jobs… In the independent workforce, automation may actually increase demand for flexible workers who have skills and agility that machines are unable to provide.”

A June 25, 2016 article in The Economist entitled “Automation and anxiety” appears to agree. “… in the past, technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys. That is because of the way automation works in practice… automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated.”

Instead of hiring workers to assemble widgets which can now be done efficiently by machines, manufacturers are hiring mechanical engineers, software developers, technicians, mechatronics technicians, which combines electrical and mechanical engineering along with computer skills, in addition to managers and salespeople. These skilled professionals build, program and maintain the machines, while other skilled employees operate and repair them.

In an Associated Press article from August 30, 2017 entitled “Future of Work – Running the Robots,” writers Dan Sewell and Christopher S. Rugaber stated, “… American manufacturers have actually added nearly a million jobs in the past seven years, and federal statistics show nearly 390,000 jobs open… More and more factory jobs now demand education, technical know-how or specialized skills.”

Training tomorrow’s technicians

The national shortage of skilled technicians is being seen in manufacturing the past decade since not enough young people are choosing trades as a career path compared to going the four-year college degree route.

An August 29, 2017 PBS Newshour program on the subject stated “… the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocation programs with an image problem and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed…. This had the unintended consequence of helping flatten out or steadily erode the share of students taking vocational courses.”

It didn’t help that misperceptions of manufacturing jobs in America as being dirty, loud, and even dangerous has kept parents, teachers, and guidance counselors from recommending careers in the industry.

According to the PBS Newshour article a survey by the State of California of its community college system “showed that families and employers alike didn’t know the existence or value of vocational programs and the certifications they confer, many of which can add tens of thousands of dollars per year to a graduate’s income.”

The AP article from August also stated, “…factory automation has changed what companies need from their employees. Assembly-line workers now need to run, operate and troubleshoot computer-direct machinery… Advance manufacturing – employing hand-held computers, scanners, using Google Glass – is a trend that will accelerate with growing use of robotics.”

“People with career and technical educations are actually slightly more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study,” per the PBS Newshour report.

“U.S. manufacturing workers, excluding managers, make an average of $44,000 a year, according to government data… a typical mechatronics engineer with a four-year degree can earn $97,000 a year; a typical software developer makes just over $100,000,” as reported in the AP article.

Retraining today’s manufacturing employees

With the retirement of many Baby Boomers looming, the employee shortage will only get worse with time. A push to retrain existing workers has become the focus of manufactures and community colleges and vocational schools across the U.S. Some have begun partnering to bring weekly classes to a company’s campus, while others schools have started tailoring their programming based on what skills local manufacturers tell them their staff members most need. Some companies offer partial or full tuition reimbursement for employees that undertake advanced training.

The lack of skilled technicians for automation-oriented jobs has even gotten the attention of politicians. According to the AP article, “…there are efforts underway to bridge the skills gap… Many political leaders and CEOs are promoting apprenticeships and other training programs as a way to help address the problem.”

What’s next?

In summary, the introduction of automation to U.S. manufacturing has brought with it change but also increased productivity. Products are being made in a more efficient manner, with fewer problems, and at a cost saving to the end user thanks to production line robotics and technology. But still, there is much that we need to do to ready our existing and future workforce to adapt to working with these machines.

In the October issue of our In the Zone newsletter, we will discuss how the worker shortage is being addressed through retraining of existing workers and the recruitment of future workers to the manufacturing industry. We will also profile a local company that builds automation lines for its clients, and interview a local company using automation in its manufacturing.

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