Are the robots going to take my job? Or will they create new opportunities in a fast-changing economy?

 

“It’s not an unreasonable fear

 if what you fear actually comes true.”

– anonymous

 

A report out of the University of Toronto says as many as 7.5 million good Canadian jobs could be taken over by robots in the next 10 to 15 years. A scary prospect.

Robots and self-service machines are appearing in every aspect of our daily lives – banking, grocery stores, cars, shipping – but nowhere is there more talk of automation than in the manufacturing and warehousing industries.  Amazon has reportedly saved $22 million in wages in its warehouses where it has deployed robots to pick and sort packages.

Invariably, it comes down to cost.  As soon as the cost of wages reaches a threshold where it makes economic sense to automate, in come the robots. In many cases the jobs that are eliminated are low-paying, repetitive, inefficient and sometimes dangerous jobs which are hard to fill.  These include many jobs in cleaning, parts assembly, heavy lifting and hauling, picking packages in warehouses and so on. 

Unfortunately, a lot of these jobs are entry-level, highly sought after by people with few skills or who have language issues.  Fortunately, many of them are converted from jobs held by brawny men into jobs that women thrive in. Lifting a 200-pound package onto a shelf is child’s play if you control the lifting power of a forklift.

The company doesn’t really care. The bottom line is, they can reduce their costs by eliminating employees who require wages, sick time, vacation time, maternity/paternity leave, a grievance procedure and a damned union.  General Motors now employs less than one third of the 600,000 employees they had in the US in 1970s, yet they now manufacture more cars and truck than ever.

Increased automation is a foregone conclusion. The bright side is that recent studies have shown that robots can increase employment. In recent years, increased efficiency with robots combined with increasing wages in the Third World has forced more manufacturing jobs back into the United States, for instance.

And jobs managing and operating the robots generally pay better. In situations where companies achieve productivity gains and employees receive more pay for jobs which do not break workers’ backs by age 50, there is an advantage.

The key question is – will new jobs created by technology, robotics and other efficiencies replace all the jobs it has destroyed?

 Stay tuned.

March 8, 2017