Industrial robots are seeing increased adoption across a wide range of industries, and they’re bringing a new era of productivity with them. Some worry that this productivity might cost people their jobs. That’s an oversimplification. Like most technological advances, robots are valuable tools that will make our workdays better.
Fears of automation taking away jobs are not new. In the 19th century, textile workers organized to oppose the use of industrial machinery. Named after weaver Ned Ludd, the Luddites feared that mechanization would replace them. Since then, we have seen similar worries about tech trends ranging from mechanization in farming to AI-based writing tools. Today, the word ‘Luddite’ has come to describe anyone opposed to technology.
Economists also have a name for these concerns about job erosion. They call it the Luddite Fallacy. It stems from a simplistic view of technology innovation and its effect on the labor market while ignoring the nuances.
Robotic automation can help with the shortage of workers
The first nuance is the supply of workers. Robots can only take jobs from people if there are people to fill them in the first place. The number of available and willing employees – particularly in the manufacturing industry – has been falling consistently for some time.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) documented 4.3 million people in the US voluntarily leaving their jobs in December 2021, down just slightly from a record high the previous month. At the time of writing, the latest (August 2022) figures showed that little had changed, with 4.2 million quitting – and 286,000 of those were in manufacturing. People are leaving their jobs in droves.
Many of these workers will not return. According to McKinsey, 44% have little interest in returning to their jobs in the next six months. Burnout and the chance to reassess life choices during the pandemic have prompted the mass exodus, according to the consulting firm.
This phenomenon, often called the Great Resignation, has left gaps in the jobs market that could hinder productivity if companies do not fill them. McKinsey noted a 4.8 million shortfall in employees last year. The BLS noted a civilian unemployment rate of 3.5% during September. This equals the levels seen just before the pandemic, which were the lowest unemployment rates we had seen in over two decades.
Job transformation, not elimination
When people are unavailable to work, automation can fill those gaps. That keeps companies strong and generates more jobs for those that want them. That’s the other often-overlooked fact about automation; rather than simply spiriting away jobs, it changes them.
Robots displace some roles but they create others. According to a study by Wharton business school, robotic automation increases productivity in companies that adopt it.
It is not in the nature of these companies to stop growing as they become more efficient. Instead, they use the competitive advantage that automation gives them to increase their market share. That growth creates a need for employees in other areas of the company. In fact, the Wharton study found that companies not adopting automation were more likely to lose jobs overall.
Those worried about job loss ignore this compensatory effect. The World Economic Forum studied this in its Future of Jobs 2020 report. It is predicted that by 2025, automation will result in a net increase of 12 million jobs rather than a net loss.
Perhaps the real question should be around the opportunities for redeployment and job improvement, rather than attrition. Companies handling this transformation correctly can transition employees into more fulfilling jobs, increasing morale and engagement.
There is a precedent for this redeployment. When farming was mechanized in the early 20th century, manual laborers switched to industrial work. In the modern world, those rare people whose roles have been entirely displaced by robots can turn to a rich variety of other jobs. These range from quality control to more sophisticated jobs in areas such as software development. People might move from manual production line jobs to programming CNC robots or configuring 3D printers.
The level of training necessary for redeployment varies depending on the worker’s existing experience and their destination role, but statistics suggest a relatively easy transition to a new career with an increase in job satisfaction and better pay. Companies surveyed by the WEF anticipate reskilling 40% of workers in six months or less, and 94% believe that many employees will pick up new skills on the job.
Employees want this. The WEF says that workers eager to level up were already reskilling themselves, even before robotic automation. It saw a four-fold increase in the number of individuals taking online courses during the first months of the pandemic in Q2 2020. Employers increased online learning opportunities for their employees fivefold during the same period.
Enhancing human workers
The discussion so far has focused on job displacement. But what about job enhancement? Many processes cannot be completely replaced by robots. Executives from the Association for Advancing Automation point out that only 10% of jobs are fully automatable.
Instead, robots are likely to make existing workers more productive. For example, there are some processes that humans are often simply better at than robots today. Many of these, such as checking for and fixing inadequate seams in a product component, don’t happen in a consistent enough way to automate. Robots can automate the tasks supporting these more nuanced processes, freeing human workers from mundane work to focus on adding value where it is most needed.
In many cases, a task that is slow and mundane (perhaps burnishing a piece of metal) might be a bottleneck on a production line. Automating that process could provide human workers with a faster, steadier flow of parts for their own tasks, speeding up the production line overall.
How robots will make our jobs easier
These scenarios show how robots can enhance rather than replace human workers. They can also help to improve worker safety by assisting with dangerous tasks. These might include working in hazardous areas or manipulating objects that would be challenging for human operators to move. For example, robots are increasingly being used to load and unload all types of machines, where parts may be heavy and difficult to reach, and the machine poses a risk of harm to the operator.
Robotic automation has revolutionized many large businesses. Now, it’s doing the same for smaller ones while making work safer and better for employees. Planning for maximum productivity should go hand in hand with a recognition of human talent and a growth plan to harness and enhance employee skills. Robots can supercharge productivity, but people are and always will be an organization’s greatest asset.