Automation isn’t the biggest threat to US factory jobs

Number of American workers who quit their job during the pandemic – more than a fifth of the workforce – could constitute one of the largest American labor movements in recent history. The workers demanded higher pay and better conditions, spurred by rising inflation and the pandemic realization that employers expected them to risk their lives for low pay, poor benefits and few protections from abusive customers, often when company stock prices soared. At the same time, automation has become cheaper and smarter than ever. Robot adoption reached records in 2021. This was no surprise, given past trends in robotics, but it was likely accelerated by pandemic-related labor shortages and Covid-19 safety requirements. The robots automate work millennials who “don’t want to work,” or could this technology actually improve workers’ jobs and help companies attract more enthusiastic employees?

The answer depends on more than what is technologically feasible, including what actually happens when a factory installs a new robot or a checkout aisle is replaced with a self-checkout booth, and what future possibilities await displaced workers and their children. So far, we know that the gains from automation have proven to be notoriously uneven. A key element of productivity growth in the 20th century came from the replacement of workers by technology, and economist Carl Benedikt Frey notes that American productivity increased by 400 percent from 1930 to 2000, when the average leisure time only increased by 3%. (Since 1979, the productivity of American labor, or dollars created per worker, has grown eight times faster than workers’ hourly compensation.) During this period, technological luxuries have become necessities and new types of jobs. flourished, while workers’ unions living wages dissolved and workers with less education lag even further behind those with high school and college degrees. But the trend has different depending on the industrialized countries: From 1995 to 2013, America had a 1.3% gap between productivity growth and median wage growth, but in Germany the gap was only 0.2%.

Technology adoption will continue to increase whether or not America can evenly distribute the technological benefits. So the question becomes, what control do we actually have over automation? To what extent does this control depend on national or regional policies, and how much power can companies and individual workers have in their own workplace? Is it inevitable that robots and artificial intelligence will take all our jobs, and when? While some researchers believe our destinies are predetermined by the technologies themselves, emerging evidence indicates that we can have a huge influence on how these machines are used in our factories and offices, if only we can figure out how to use them. this power.

While 8 percent of German manufacturing workers left their jobs (voluntarily or involuntarily) between 1993 and 2009, 34% of US manufacturing workers left their jobs during the same period. Thanks to workplace bargaining and sectoral wage settingGerman manufacturing workers have better financial incentives to stay in their jobs; The conference board reports that the average German manufacturing worker earned $43.18 (plus $8.88 in benefits) per hour in 2016, while the average US manufacturing worker earned $39.03 with only $3.66 in benefits. Overall, Germans across the economy with a “average” secondary or vocational diploma earned $24.31 per hour in 2016, while Americans with a comparable education earned an average of $14.55 per hour. Two case studies illustrate the differences between American and German approaches to manufacturing and automation workers, from policies to supply chains to worker training systems.

In a town on the outskirts of the Black Forest in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, with winding cobbled streets and pointed red roofs, there is a 220-person factory that has spent decades as a world leader in safety-critical fabricated metal equipment for sites such as road tunnels, airports and nuclear reactors. It’s a vast, unassuming warehouse next to a few acres of golden mustard flowers. When I visited my colleagues at MIT Interactive Robotics Group and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation Future work lab (part of various programs supported by the German government Fraunhofer network for industrial research and development), the factory’s senior manager informed us that the attitudes of his workers, like the 14th-century church downtown, hadn’t changed much in his 25 years. mandate at the factory. The teenagers were still entering the business as apprentices in metal fabrication through Germany double alternation professional system and wages are high enough that most young people expect to stay in the factory and work their way up until retirement, earning a respectable living along the way. Small German manufacturers can also get government grants to help send their workers back to school to learn new skills that often equate to higher wages. This manager had worked closely with a nearby technical university to develop advanced welding certifications, and he was proud to be able to rely on his “welding family” of local businesses, technology integrators, trade associations in welding and educational institutions for support with new technologies and training.

Our research team also visited a 30-person factory in urban Ohio that manufactures fabricated metal products for the automotive industry, not far from empty warehouses and shuttered downtown office buildings. This factory owner, a grandson of the company’s founder, complained that he was losing his unskilled minimum-wage technicians to a nearby job that offered better pay. “We’re like a training company for big companies,” he said. He had given up on finding workers with the proper training and resigned himself to finding unskilled workers who could hopefully be trained on the job. About 65% of his company’s business used to go to an automotive supplier, which outsourced its metal fabrication to China in 2009, forcing the Ohio-based company to shrink to a third of its previous staff.

While the Baden-Württemberg plant grabbed market share by selling specialized finished products at high prices, the Ohio plant basic components manufactured to sell to intermediaries, who then resold to powerful automobile firms. Thus, the Ohio company had to compete with low-wage bulk producers in China, while the highly specialized German company had few foreign or domestic competitors, forcing it to reduce its workforce. qualified work or to lower their wages.

Welding robots have replaced some of the tasks of workers at both plants, but both are still actively hiring new people. The German firm’s first robot, purchased in 2018, was a new “collaborative” welding arm (with a friendly user interface) designed to be used by workers with welding expertise, rather than professional robot programmers unfamiliar with the intricacies of welding. Training welders to operate the robot is not a problem in Baden-Württemberg, where everyone arriving as new welders has a professional qualification representing at least two years of education and a practical apprenticeship in welding, fabrication metal and 3D modeling. Several of the company’s welders had already learned to operate the robot, helped by prior training. And although the German company’s director was delighted to save on labor costs, his main reason for acquiring the robot was to improve worker health and safety and minimize sequences. tedious and repetitive welding jobs, so that it could continue to attract young, skilled workers who would stay. Another German factory we visited had recently acquired a robot to take care of a machine during the night shift so that fewer workers had to work overtime or come in at night.

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