Automation isn’t the biggest threat to US factory jobs

Automation isn't the biggest threat to US factory jobs

number of American workers who quit their jobs during the pandemic – more than a fifth of the workforce – may have one of the largest US labor movements in recent history. Workers demanded higher wages and better conditions, fueled by rising inflation and the pandemic realization that employers expected them to risk their lives for low wages, mediocre benefits and some protection from abusive clients – Often while corporate stock prices go up. Plus, automation has become cheaper and smarter than ever. Robot adoption hit a record high in 2021. This was not a surprise given past trends in robotics, but was likely to accelerate due to pandemic-related labor shortages and COVID-19 safety requirements. Will robots automate the jobs of entitled Millennials who “don’t want to work” or can this technology actually improve workers’ jobs and help firms attract more enthusiastic employees?

The answer depends on more than what is technically feasible, including what exactly happens when a factory installs a new robot or a cashier aisle is replaced by a self-checkout booth – and the future prospects of displaced workers. and waits for their children. So far, we know that the benefits derived from automation have proven notoriously uneven. A major component of 20th century productivity growth came from replacing workers with technology, and economist Carl Benedict Frey noted that American productivity increased by 400 percent from 1930 to 2000, while average leisure time increased by only 3 percent. increased. (Since 1979, US labor productivity, or dollars created per employee, has grown eight times faster than workers’ hourly compensation.) During this period, technological luxuries became necessities and new types of employment flourished— flourished—while labor unions that ensured a living wage disbanded and less educated workers were further left behind those with high school and college degrees. But the trend is different in industrialized countries: From 1995 to 2013, the US experienced a 1.3 percent difference between productivity growth and average wage growth, but in Germany the difference was only 0.2 percent.

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Technology adoption will continue to increase, whether or not the US can equitably distribute technological benefits. So the question becomes, how much control do we really have over the automation? How much of this control is dependent on national or regional policies, and how much power can individual firms and workers have in their own workplaces? Is it inevitable that robots and artificial intelligence will take all our jobs, and in what time frame? While some scholars believe that our destiny is predetermined by the technologies themselves, emerging evidence indicates that we may have a considerable influence on how such machines are employed in our factories and offices. If only we could figure out how to harness this power.

while 8 percent German construction workers quit their jobs (voluntarily or involuntarily) between 1993 and 2009, with 34 percent of American manufacturing workers leaving their jobs in the same period. Thanks to workplace bargaining and regional wage-setting, German manufacturing workers have better financial incentives to stay at their jobs; The Conference Board reports that the average German manufacturing worker earned $43.18 per hour in 2016 (over $8.88 in benefits), while the average American manufacturing worker earned $39.03, with a profit of only $3.66. Overall, Germans with “middle-skill” high school or vocational certificates earned $24.31 an hour in 2016, while Americans with comparable education earned an average of $14.55 an hour. Two case studies illustrate the differences between American and German approaches to construction workers and automation, from policies to supply chains to worker training systems.

On the outskirts of the Black Forest in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, is a 220-person factory, complete with winding cobblestone streets and gabled red roofs, which has established itself as a global leader in safety-critical fabricated metal tools for such sites. spends decades. in the form of highway tunnels, airports and nuclear reactors. It is a wide, plain godown next to golden mustard flowers on a few acres. When I visited with my colleagues from the MIT Interactive Robotics Group and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation’s Future Work Lab (part of the diverse German government-backed Fraunhofer Network for Industrial Research and Development), the senior factory manager informed us that Like his 14th-century church downtown, his 25-year tenure at the factory had seen little to no change in the attitudes of the workers. Teenagers still enter the firm as apprentices in metal fabrication through Germany’s dual work-study vocational system, and wages are so high that most young people expect to remain in the factory and move up the ranks until retirement. are, earn a respectable life along the way. Smaller German manufacturers can also receive government subsidies to help send their workers back to school so they can learn new skills that often equate to higher wages. This manager worked closely with a nearby technical university to develop advanced welding certification, and on his “welding family” of local firms, technology integrators, welding trade associations and educational institutions to support new technology and training. He was proud to trust.


Our research team also visited a 30-person factory in urban Ohio that manufactures fabricated metal products for the automotive industry, not far from the city’s vacant warehouses and closed office buildings. The owner of this factory, a grandson of the firm’s founder, complained of losing his unskilled, minimum-wage technicians to any nearby job willing to pay better. “We’re like a training company for big companies,” he said. He had given up on finding workers with relevant training and resigned himself to finding unskilled workers who, hopefully, could be trained on the job. About 65 percent of his firm’s business went to an automotive supplier, which outsourced its metal manufacturing to China in 2009, forcing the Ohio firm to shrink to a third of its former workforce.

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While the Baden-Württemberg factory commanded market share by selling specialized final products at premium prices, the Ohio factory made commodity components to sell to middlemen, which were then sold to powerful automotive firms. The Ohio firm therefore had to compete with low-wage, bulk producers in China, while the highly specialized German firm had few foreign or domestic competitors forcing it to reduce its skilled workforce or lower wages.

Welding robots have replaced some of the functions of workers in two factories, but both are still actively hiring new ones. The German firm’s first robot, purchased in 2018, was a new “collaborative” welding arm (with a friendly user interface), designed to be operated by workers with welding expertise, not professional robot programmers. Those who do not know the intricacies of welding. Training a welder to operate a robot is not a problem in Baden-Württemberg, where everyone who comes in as a new welder has at least two years of education and training in welding, metal fabrication and 3D modeling. Has a vocational degree representing practical apprenticeship. Many of the firm’s welders had already learned to operate the robot, with the aid of prior training. And although the German firm manager was pleased to save on labor costs, his main reason for acquiring the robot was to improve the health and safety of workers and reduce boring, repetitive welding sequences—so that it could continue to attract skilled young workers. May those who will be around. We recently visited another German factory in which a robot was acquired to operate a machine during night shifts so that fewer workers would have to work overtime or come in at night.


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