AI disruption seems to have thinned the workforce for good. Now what?
Where would we be if wheels were still square? If the Luddites kept machines out of textile mills? If the cotton gin didn’t decimate the pre-war Confederate workforce? Today, one has to wonder how many truck drivers will be able to find new work once driverless rigs rule the roads.
With regard to the the long-term impact of automation general, I’ve been ambivalent for decades; gung-ho for progress but concerned about a gutting of the workforce. In the mid ’90s, I spent a day with an engineering leader who gave me a tour of his workplace, a refinery that stretched for miles. He showed:
- Pride in his control network, which bore early AI enhancements
- Sorrow for the loss of most employees at the plant and industry-wide due to automation, and
- Resentment of the coming “corpocracy” in which individuals lose their humanity.
I shared my ambivalence in a column I wrote for Control magazine at about that time after a conversation with a senior engineer at another Big Petro firm folding 17 subsidiaries into one. I started the column ranting about corporate “destructuring” and “dumb sizing,” and ended with: “It’s hard to argue with the bottom line.”
Likewise, I’m mixed about the impact of industrial robots, worth about $40 billion and pegged to top $71.72 billion by 2023. Companies choose to replace people when the technology is available because they’re a better-faster-cheaper way to go. I was saddened at the demise of ReThink Robotics, maker of Baxter and Sawyer, the industry’s friendliest collaborative robots, or cobots. (collaborative robots). And I was glad the company was quickly bought-up by Germany’s Hahn Group. Rethink, a small player compared to leaders such as FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa, failed not for lack of demand, but in large part due to technical issues, if this RobotReport postmortem is accurate.
In better times (2016), I spoke with ReThink’s Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer, who extolled his bots’ rapid ROI (as low as 1.5 years) and quick installation time (under a month) as well as speed and flexibility. For instance, he told me of a Tier One automotive supplier that replaced 20 hours of manual labor day: “$25,000 for the robot, and a little bit for the grippers, and we’ve saved them $180,000 a year.”
Robots don’t call in sick, need healthcare, come in late or take days off. They do work when workers don’t want to, or can’t be found. And companies are bound by the need for competitive advantage and higher profits to use them if they’ll keep the shareholders happy. But again, the industrial workforce, once an engine of the middle class, is shrinking.
The U.S. middle class: Doomed?
Technology both eliminates and creates jobs, but the former appears to be winning in the U.S. marketplace.
As one Clorox exec said during a panel discussion a couple of years back, “every” manufacturing company is busy automating and “leaning-out” its lines. A Kraft Foods alum added that it’s commonplace for companies to replace upward of “100 people on a Lunchables line [with robots] picking up stacks of pre-sliced meat and pre-sliced cheese.”
“Employment trends have polarized the workforce and hollowed out the middle class,” David Rotman, editor of MIT Technology Review wrote in the article, “How Technology is Destroying Jobs.” Since then, TechCrunch promulgated the paradox that “Technology is killing jobs, and only technology can save them” (2016),” The New York Times shared in 2017 “Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs.”
What to do? Thought leaders across business, politics and industry have since given credence to the movement for Universal Basic Income, a flat payment to every citizen, to address poverty and job losses largely incurred by technological advancement.
UBI has been advocated by the Brookings Institution, given credence by Fortune (no leftist-socialist totem), and promoted by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and many in Silicon Valley, including Mark Zuckerberg. More recently, UBI generated headlines in 2018 in Chicago with a petition by city Alderman Ameya Pawar (@Ameya_Pawar_IL) to take the city Universal:
There ain’t no “i” in TEAM
Henry Ford did it, McDonald’s did it, and now the collective, global technology hive mind is doing it: Standardizing business processes to advance the competitive mandate for greater productivity and profitability. I love to hear stories of happy employees, but below photo mesmerized me to the point of distraction. So I’m using it to illustrate a point:
The point — no offense intended to the editor who penned the caption! — is that companies can’t afford for their employees to be “themselves” in that we can’t have guitar players, poets or sewing circle meetings on the factory floor. The employees pictured are essentially identical, down to their garb (as required by sanitary food handling rules). Their jobs are the same, too: to comply with uniform standards procedures.
But if there’s no ‘i’ in TEAM,” there’s still something of a “we.” The ranks will thin, but there will remain a critical need for creative human minds to solve problems, even at the line level.
Almost a decade ago I helped a manufacturing exec, Greg Flickinger, document a cultural transformation at food firm Snyder’s-Lance in Charlotte, N.C. His team reduced scrap 40 percent; reduced customer complaints 41 percent; and, among other good stuff, slashed production changeover time to save more than $300,000 annually.
The human-machine interface, writ large over time, points to great gains and equally daunting challenges. Let’s face it: As a species, we’ve got a troubling historic myopia, and an immediate need to reconcile longstanding issues relating to our technology and economy, or techonomy.