A3: Automation is a Tool for Job Growth, But Better Training Needed

Southeast Michigan’s Association for Advancing Automation (A3) is one of the hosts of the biennial Automate conference happening next week in Chicago, and organizers say this year’s edition is expected to be the biggest yet, drawing more than 20,000 attendees.

In anticipation of the event, A3, a trade group promoting automation, has produced a white paper that details some of the workforce challenges and economic opportunities associated with automation—a growing sector that includes robotics, machine visioning, motion control, and other technologies. A3 released a preview of the white paper today, and will present its findings in full next week at the conference.

Despite the efficiencies and cost savings that make automation attractive to employers, the general public seems to retain a bit of skepticism. After all, we’ve heard the predictions that automation will potentially displace millions of workers starting just a few short decades from now. Doyle has a different perspective. He feels automation could be a liberating force for workers, freeing them from the drudgery of repetitive or menial tasks and paving the way for a more fulfilling career.

“I see automation as a tool that will allow businesses to grow and hire more people,” says Bob Doyle, A3’s director of communications. “The biggest problem is finding qualified workers for the jobs that are open now. It’s imperative that community colleges and universities educate the workforce with the skills they need to compete.”

The data reported in A3’s white paper, titled Work in the Automation Age: Sustainable Careers Today and Into the Future,” seems to bear that out. Eighty percent of manufacturers report a shortage of qualified applicants for skilled production positions, with as many as two million jobs expected to go unfilled in the next decade. That shortage could cost American manufacturers 11 percent of annual revenues, the white paper found. Manufacturing executives also report an average of 94 days to recruit engineers and researchers, and 70 days to recruit skilled production workers.

A3’s research paper also found that the number of jobs can actually increase as a result of automation. For example, Amazon had roughly 45,000 employees before robots were introduced to production in 2014. Even though robots have been continually added to Amazon’s workforce since then, the company has grown to more than 90,000 employees and said it plans to hire more than 100,000 new people by the end of 2018. (Of course, automation is not the only reason for Amazon’s growth. But the numbers do seem to indicate that automation doesn’t necessarily have to be a jobs-killer.)

There’s another reason U.S. companies should jump into automation with both feet, Doyle says: competition. “If we don’t invest in automation, other countries will,” he says. “They already are. It’s important to ensure American companies remain competitive, and automation is one tool.”

To Doyle, automation doesn’t have to be a zero-sum proposition. He points to collaborative robots, where people and machines work side-by-side. “Collaborative robotics is a newer technology that is cheaper and easier to integrate,” Doyle explains. “It allows smaller companies that have never automated to give it a try.”

However, Doyle emphasizes that better training is the key to making automation more of a boon than a threat to workers. Employers, vocational schools, and universities must continue to try innovative approaches to teaching workers the skills they need, he adds, and offer alternatives to the high-school-to-college trajectory that can be prohibitively expensive or time-consuming for many students.

As part of its conference-hosting duties, A3 is also overseeing a startup competition called Automate Launch Pad. Sponsored by GE and co-produced by Silicon Valley Robotics, the competition features eight young companies battling for a $10,000 prize, access to investors, and a booth at the show. And although none of the Automate Launch Pad startups are from Michigan, Doyle is nonetheless bullish on the state’s role in the industry.

“Michigan has a very healthy sector when it comes to the traditional industrial robotics space,” Doyle says. Because Michigan is a center of manufacturing, Doyle feels that the Great Lakes State has an opportunity to help lead the development of other automation technologies. “I like to say metro Detroit is the country’s original robotics cluster; that’s why all the major robotics companies have a corporate headquarters in the Detroit area. Automation grew up with the auto industry.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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