It's great to see that the robotics industry is taking off and serving a jobs-creation vehicle. Hopefully many of those jobs are in the United States and not just offshore. Just so I'm clear, the bulk of the jobs creation the study cites is related to jobs at the robotics technology companies, not at the end user sites actually putting the robots to work in industrial applications.
Skepticism can be healthy...to a point. Suspecting spin up-front can be good. However, the 70-page report done by London-based Metra Martech is only two clicks away -- the link in the press release takes you to the same press release on the International Federation of Robotics website. The link to the report PDF is at the bottom of that page. You will find plenty of charts and tables and text, including data challenges encountered and decisions made to resolve those challenges. Some content might reduce your skepticism, or tend to increase it. Either way, your thinking about it beyond an initial impression will be worthy. One tidbit: the U.S. lags other countries in the use of robots, BTW, I have no relationship to the aurhors or IFR -- and didn't even know about this study until I read it in DesignNews email. Thanks for posting it!
I hope the robotics industry didn't pay very much for this study, because it doesn't appear to be worth much. If you actually read the report, you can see that the numbers are all just ballpark estimates -- "we do not claim that these numbers are exact, but they are likely to be the right order of magnitude" is a phrase which is frequently used -- and the categories are so poorly defined as to be meaningless. It's not even written in gramatical English!
A much more compelling argument would be that robotics increases overall economic output, which creates jobs by growing the economy as a whole. I think a very strong case could be made for this. Economics is not a zero-sum game. By increasing productivity, you increase the overall volume of economic activity, which should create opportunities at all levels.
Of course, as many readers have already pointed out, without a broad level of education and technical literacy, not everyone is positioned to take advantage of these opportunities. And regardless of what you may think an acceptable level of income inequality is, low educational levels could put the brakes on economic growth by shrinking the available talent pool.
So, once again, we're back to the necessity of fixing K-12 education. Funny how often it comes back to this, isn't it?
The thing about jobs and economics and all, is that none of this takes place in a vacuum. Workers paid low enough wages don't pay taxes, and don't buy houses and pay property taxes, all of which drains local and not so local economies. Low educational levels put the brakes on economic growth not only by shrinking available talent pools, but also by shrinking available dollars to spend, and those consumer dollars are what hold up 2/3 of the national economy. This is becoming as highly visible in my mostly-blue collar county as it is in Flint, Michigan.
Good comments, Dave. This article, interestingly, prompted a quite a few comments about education. In the human-against-the-machine march through history, your best bet is to be creating or running the machine. K-12, indeed, but 12 isn't enough. The bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma.
I'm a skeptic here. First off, the demarcation between robots creating jobs and the robotics industry creating jobs is not really clear. If it's the latter, yeah, sure, there are going to be jobs making robots. As well, to say that there are going to be 1 million jobs created -- well, I'm not sure that number is all that impressive in the context of the number of jobs that'll be made obsolete by robots. I should caveat this by saying I support the robots industry. I'm just saying that the gross-level economic argument set forth in this story is not as impressive as it's made out to be.
I'm also skeptical, as I would be about statements that jobs are being created in any industry, since they are also being taken away on a regular basis, by robots or by other factors and trends. And I'm even more skeptical when an industry association tells me that something the industry's doing is really not harmful, especially if there's been a hint that it is harmful. That sounds like spin. For one thing, assuming the displacement from blue-collar to technical jobs is true, it still means that a lot of blue-collar workers are out of a job? Whether there's a net loss or a net gain is anyone's guess. And saying that robots do jobs humans wouldn't do because they are too dangerous--uh, humans will do those jobs anyway if they need to be done. For example, miners in West Virginia.
Yes, I can understand the skepticism. The study wisely chose to not make the claim that the robotics industry was creating more jobs than it was eliminating. It's not inconceivable, though. Many economists argued that the computer industry spent decades displacing jobs -- from clerical to technical -- rather than delivering a net reduction in jobs. Some claim the computer industry didn't actually begin reducing jobs until the late 80s or early 90s.
Assuming robots create jobs, isn't it the case they are creating a new breed of jobs? Likely for someone who's more educated? If I have a high level of education and/or technical training, I would imagine there wouldn't be an issue. If I'm low on the education/training scale, I would imagine times could be tougher. Is that the case, Rob?
Yes, I would imagine the breed of jobs created by the robotics industry includes primarily technical jobs. I think this is very much a parallel of the computer industry, where clerical jobs were cut and technical job proliferated.
The low-tech jobs are being threatened on a number of fronts, from outsourcing to automation. Tech jobs, meanwhile, seem to be holding up OK. One sign is that unemployment for those with college degrees is under 5 percent.
Rob, I think that's an interesting parallel with the computer industry. Yes, it did take a couple of decades for that industry to displace clerical jobs that were "replaced" by technical jobs. The problem I have with looking at it the economists' way is, the people who lost the clerical jobs did not go back to school and become candidates for the technical jobs. In other words, there was a big shift from clerical and blue collar to higher-paying white collar jobs as there has been throughout the country, beginning earlier with industries such as steel. That's left a lot of people with non-career, part-time, low-paying jobs, many of whom at one time had better paying, full time clerical and/or blue-collar jobs. In any case, the picture is a complex one.
I agree, the picture is complex. It's the old John Henry and the engine story. At a certain point, automation displaces human workers in repetitive motion work. One of the big questions facing our country is whether the government has a role or a responsibility in helping displaced workers prepare themselves to compete for high-skilled jobs as their once-high-paying jobs go away. The alternative to gaining a more marketable skill set is shifting to a lower-paying non-skilled jobs -- moving from the plant to Walmart or McDonald's.
How's this for a spin: Manufacturing companies do not exist for the purpose of employing unskilled labor. They exist to make products that people want to buy at a price they're willing to pay, and to provide profits for shareholders, like me.
One should not expect companies to provide jobs for people with few skills anymore than one should expect companies to lower their prices so that people with little money can afford their products. Or would you like them to cut corners in order to do so, like making products that don't last, are full of defects, or are unsafe? You don't get something for nothing.
The expectations placed on automotive manufacturers to produce better, faster, safer, more durable, more fuel efficient, cleaner, cheaper, and yet larger vehicles requires engineering know-how, expensive equipment, and - yes- robots. It doesn't require more unskilled hands.
Thanks for your comment, kcp. You make a valid Ron Paul-sian point,. My comment expressing skepticism about the job numbers in the survey wasn't meant to argue one way or another the issue about who should or shouldn't provide jobs. It was simply to say that the numbers bandied about didn't seem to make sense.
The numbers may be biased, and it's most likely true that most of the jobs gained by the use of robots are high-tech jobs. I take issue with those who question the morality of companies using robots instead of hiring blue-collar labor to do the same job. To claim that someone is putting a "spin" on the numbers is to imply that someone is doing something evil that they want to paint as being good.
Jennifer, that may yet come to pass. One thing to remember, though, is that robots are machines. They need to be built, monitored, calibrated, repaired and replaced. They do have a finite lifetime. This is mostly becuase those pesky human engineers keep coming up with something better. I have lived with the expectation that computers would take over jobs that required real thinking for decades. Well, it has not happened yet. I have actually designed systems that had some "intelligence" in them. Believe me, it is rudimentary.
Machines are just an extension of the human being. They are tools. As we develop tools and do research we keep altering the mix between the human and machine. I wouldn't be so pessimistic.
Again, good points Naperlou. The human brain is hard to beat. I can certainly understand that computers can beat us on memory and even on some deduction, but we have intuitive powers that are quite remarkable and they will not quickly be replaced. We've all read the articles that Steve Jobs and Einstein were smart, but they were not the smartest guys in the room. However, they both had intuition that can't be matched by smarts. Einstein himself said "You can't get to my equation by deduction."
Alex, actually, the robot situation is exactly analogous to the computerization situation. In the end, a more efficient economy means that more products will be made with higher quality at lower cost. It does come with dislocation, but that is inevitable.
I am old enough to remember a cartoon that my father had. It said, you too could be replaced by a button, I still tell that to my sons, and they just look at me funny.
Good point, Naperlou. I'm glad to see robots take some of these jobs. The repetitive-motion jobs are soul killers. I know, I did these jobs when I was young, There was a time when these jobs paid well. Those days are over. Let machines do these jobs. People will figure out alternatives for work. It's not that hard to get an education in this country.
A life of doing the same weld all day long for years -- with slight adjustments for model changes -- is not a fulfilling life. The pay may have made it worthwhile 40 years ago, but those coming into these jobs now are not getting the same deal.
I would call the statement that robotics will create a million jobs a lie. The robotics industry itself will probably not create more than a few thousand jobs. Robots used to improve quality will undoubtedly create tens of thousands of jobs, POSSIBLY. but the million claim is made to increase share prices to make the boards look better.
Robots do replace low priced labor, and they do improve quality by being much more accurate and repeatable. So they certainly do replace a lot of low end marginally skilled workers.
The jobs that are part of the robotics industry are very much high end. Even the labor building the robots is fairly high end, a bit higher than auto company assembly line work, for sure. The design of robots is much higher end, at the level of folks who are never out of work. The jobs created supporting the assembly lines that use many robots will be someplace in between, but they will not come close to outnumbering the number of lower level workers displaced by the robots.
Of course the profits will increase, but that is not the same, is it?
The dilemma of education and unskilled labor in the U.S. is one that everyone needs to be involved in, and one that everyone nees to understand fully.
Unskilled labor is fast becoming a commodity that is no longer in demand. In order to make money, you must have something to sell that others want. Gone are the days that one can expect to make a reasonable living working on an assembly line, working without advanced education. A high-school diploma is no longer valuable - even a bachelor's degree is considered average.
I expect my daughters to know how to read at least some words before kindergarten. My four-year-old is already reading at a rudamentary level. Parents need to be involved with their children's development and not rely on a public government-run institution that is our educational system. Such a system is dumbed-down to the lowest level to make sure the weakest can get through. It has become a pathetic attempt to make everyone feel "good". It's not good, and parents need to raise the bar. After all, parents are responsible for children's education, not the government.
You're right KCP, education quality comes down to the involvement of the parents. All the studies keep showing this. It's not the amount of $$ spent per student or the quality of the teacher's education or how much that teacher is getting paid. It's parental involvement. Some schools in tough neighborhoods have offered free pizza in the evening to get parents to come to school and interact with teachers and administrators. Hasn't worked. The parents don't come.
It happens in the home. By the time my kids hit kindergarten, they we're reading, learning Spanish, learning numbers. The assumption is that they would go to college. And they did.
The emphasis on education was even stronger with my inlaws. They were imigrants. They instilled in their kids that education was freedom, pure and simple. All of their kids ended up with multiple graduate degrees.
I agree, KCP. These days, teachers like to complain about so-called "helicopter parents," who get overly-involved. But the kids of helicopter parents have a far better shot at educational advancement than the kids whose parents don't show up for parent-teacher conferences.
Kcp makes a good point. At the same time, it's important to realize that skills don't necessarily equate to a college education. I believe we need to reinvigorate, and also give respect to, trade schools and training to be a plumber, welder, technician and numerous other in-the-field jobs which are needed and can't be outsourced. This is something that I see as being neglected in the whole STEM debate, important though the STEM discussion is.
Whether or not you have a degree is really beside the point, because it's a piece of paper. However, I think that in most cases formal training or eduction of some sort is the best way to gain the skills necessary to compete in the marketplace - and the more you know, the better.
I guess the point I really wanted to make is that if one does not have the skills to do a better job than a robot, one should realize that one's job may someday be replaced by automation - it's only a matter of time. And companies have every right to do so if it increases their profits or improves product quality (which, by the way also increases profits). I just can't understand those who think they deserve to be paid enough to buy an SUV for putting screws into holes all day long.
@kcp, you have hit the nail on the head concerning a piece of paper. I am sure we have all had the misfortune to work with degreed people who could not find their way to the front door if the crowd was not already headed there. By the same token I have worked with grizzled old set-up men who could figure out how to make a process work ,by relying on experience. It takes many different skill sets to make industry work and I am not ready to throw any under the bus, skilled or unskilled.
When I was in a position where i was hiring and firing people the hardest position I ever had to fill was a good janitor. When I found one who was really top notch, he was never content to stay in that position, so he would move up to something more responsible. However when I found a someone content to be a janitor, their work ethic and pride in what they did was nonexistant. I have spoken to other industry HR people who have found the same thing. They may not be skilled as such, but they are essential to a healthy happy work place.
I agree with you 100% on the "It's a piece of paper" But as I found out with 3M, you need it to get hired. I had a friend that worked there and asked me for a resume. He handed it to the HR dept. Several weeks later I was called in for testing. There was around 40 to 50 people that took the electronics test. I was called in for an interview, and at that point was told I would be 1 of 5 to be hired. 3M hired the first person, then a few weeks later called me, to hire me. The HR person said there was one thing missing in my package, my degree. I explained I recieved all of my electronics training during my 21 yrs in the military. That was not good enough. They needed that "piece of paper". So even though I was number 2 out of all those people, I could not be hired.
You're right, KCP, about people believing they deserve high pay for a job that can be commoditized. But that's human nature. Good days come and we begin to believe we're entitled to those good days. Any job that can be commoditized is eventually at risk.
It's a lot like Google, they will not hire you unless you have a 4 year degree in something... you could have an IQ of 198 and blazed through High School with straight A's but if you didn't put the effort into going to school like everyone else they will not put in the time to hire you.
That piece of paper has always been the reason subject A gets hired and subject B does not.
Anyways back to the subject.
Robotics does create jobs. If you do not believe me then come to Wisconsin and meet me. The company I work for decided to start a robotic welding department about 7 years ago. It was small but adding that first ABB robot cell added 2 jobs. One being the Programmer. Two being the "Operator". Being a robotic welding operator, you perform simple duties such as pushing buttons, deburring and repairing of parts. A non-degree job. Yes it would make sense to put an experienced welder on it to make the best repairs, but we didn't. We still have many parts being welded manually, but today we have 12 robot cells.
I am the companies 3rd shift programmer. We do not have engineers at my company. Instead I do all of the duties an Engineer would do (for a fraction of the pay :P) but it is great work experience and good to put on a resume in case it was needed.
So our company in total has added 39 jobs due to the robotic welding department. A large number if you ask me!
Andrew, that is quite heartening that your company has created 39 jobs from ABB's welding robot department. I wonder how that compares with other industrial robot uses aside from welding. Does anyone know?
I think Alex's point deserves a second look: not only do we need to train people in blue-collar jobs, such as in trade schools, but also those jobs have to get back the respect they used to have, especially when most jobs were blue-collar, meaning pre-automation days. How to give back that respect, I have no idea. I'm not even sure it's possible, but it certainly won't happen if no one's trying.
While I will not be so bold as to making carte blanche statements, I will say that I do not see this in my experience. For every company that I have been employed, spanning an almost 50 year career, the opposite has been the case. In every instance where a process was automated, there was employee attrition. And, with that elimination of position did not come a replacement of higher educational competency. When I started at my current employer we had about 25 "production" employees. Through my concerted efforts at designing automation equipment, we have in the past 15 years reduced the total employ to 15 members, which includes office staff, while at the same time increasing output (revenue) at least 10-fold. We moved into a more modern & structurally sound facility, and have gained in other ways too.
These machines run for the most part unattended. The existing production employees are knowledgeable in the machines' operations, and are qualified to support them for the most part. We are an ISO 9000 registered company, so ALL of these machines are well-documented in that framework.
Robots for quality, not job elimination is an interesting point to note.
The manufacturing industry all over the world is forced to improve their production processes. Robots are being used to accomplish this. while robots are certainly trimming repetitive manufacturing jobs, the robotics industry continues to add jobs at an aggressive rate.
1) Yes, robots decrease jobs where they are applied,
2) Price of end product generally goes down and supply increases
3) Demand increases due to lower price which in turn increases sales
4) Supporting jobs increase due to larger production quantities which in turn increase orders from said manufacturer.
So while robots decrease jobs in one industry they raise the demand of the population which in turn causes a chain event that brings us back to more jobs. Ideally everything will be extremely cheap and everything will be made by robots. We will all be software and hardware engineers and the world will be a better place... Well almost we would still have lawyers and politicians....
Good comments, Ervin. Robots eliminate jobs that are often repetitive and unpleasant. while the robot industry will not create as many jobs as it eliminates, the jobs it will create will tend to be technical jobs that are likely to be more creative than repetitive and thus more fulfilling.
Interesting point about the displacement of jobs (as opposed to a simple net loss of jobs). It's clear that automation will continue to reduce the number of jobs in certain sectors of manufacturing. The following article concedes this, but offers the similar perspective that automation may also open doors to new jobs related to the building and maintenance of robots: http://blogs.ptc.com/2012/04/06/does-increased-automation-steal-manufacturing-jobs/
Yes, I agree with your point -- as does the Association of Robotics. If the computer industry is any indication, job creation in robotics may be greater than we think. The computer industry -- according to gov. studies -- did not deliver net job reduction until the 1990s. The industry simply created more jobs (in dollars) than it eliminated. Of course, once the efficiencies kicked in, there was massive job reduction. Eight ga-zillion secretaries lost their jobs.
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