When you hear that word, what comes to mind?
The answer most likely depends on your familiarity with our industry. To many people outside the automation industry, the first thought that might pop up is:
"Will my job be replaced by a robot?"
The concern is valid for a lot of people all over the world. If we’re being honest, there is no simple answer.
One of the goals of the International Society of Automation (ISA) is to educate folks about automation. We cover a lot of the more technical aspects in depth, such as best practices, new technologies, and the broader implications of Industry 4.0. It seems, however, as though we rarely discuss the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Today, let’s tackle it.
First, a Little Background
The anxiety over automation is widespread. People from many different backgrounds and beliefs share it, and if you look around at world events, it makes sense. Automation shows up in the news a lot these days, and it’s rarely good. A former 2020 U.S. presidential candidate's campaign was devoted to proving that automation leads to mass unemployment. We see reports like this one from Oxford Economics predicting that robots will replace up to 20 million factory jobs by 2030. It’s a real possibility that many of the tasks that make up your typical work day in 2020 won’t be necessary in five or 10 years. We can’t predict what the jobs of the future will be, for the first time in history.
“The automation issue” is often simplified into two sides that are “for automation” and “against automation.” It can be difficult to convince anyone on either “side” to really listen to each other’s points, but the situation is more complex than a simple yes or no. There is no easy answer to today’s challenges, or one single valid viewpoint.
To help illustrate their arguments, analysts on both “sides” often point to the automotive industry trends of the 1970s and 1980s, when factories across the U.S. shut down due to outsourcing, and the first robots were brought in to replace workers who, until then, had good-paying reliable jobs.
On one side, you have those who claim most workers from that era were retrained into other, more modern, higher-paying jobs—but realistically, that wasn’t true for everyone.
On the other side, you have the fact that many people who worked at these plants for 15 or 20 years lost their jobs overnight to a machine—but while these jobs were disappearing, new technologies were being introduced, along with new job opportunities.
Change is not kind to everyone, but it is inevitable.
We Can Agree on the Basic Facts
If you have an opinion on automation, regardless of where you stand, there are a couple of basic facts on which you’ll probably agree.
1. Technology is always changing, and tech changes lead to job changes.
This has been true since humans first learned to use stone tools—when, as you might imagine, the need for someone to make and use these tools also arose. Even those who try to limit certain aspects of how we use technology (think, for example, about a family deciding to curb its smart phone use at the dinner table), usually still rely on that technology in their everyday lives. In the global economy, opinions on technology don’t matter nearly as much as the cold, hard data on whether people actually use it.
Technology changes aren’t always bad for human workers, either. In many cases, they’re a huge positive.
If you typically work in an office, can you imagine what your day-to-day routine would look like without a computer, a smart phone, or email?
Industrial and factory workers certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the days when broken equipment, injuries, and fatalities were commonplace.
There are many instances where automation has come in to improve people’s work and lives. A recent MIT study found that manufacturers that were quick to add robots to their production lines actually increased employee hours worked in a five-year period. Wages rose as well. Productivity and profits increased for these companies—and so did growth and market share, leading to the need for more workers. (Job losses were more concentrated in companies that dragged their feet on new technology.)
When we only look back at history to see what was lost, we sometimes—understandably—neglect the long view. Take our first example with the automotive industry. At the same time automotive work in the U.S. was heading overseas, the entire computing industry was in its infancy. Jobs were created that didn’t exist before computing became widespread. The geographic distribution didn’t quite overlap with automotive jobs lost, and this displacement led to lasting hardship for many, although some got lucky. In time, younger generations found (or invented) new areas of technology in which they could focus their professional lives.
No one likes to think about it, but realistically, some jobs will be eliminated by automation. Still, this technological revolution is different than the one in the 1970s and 1980s. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), robotics, and smart devices are being implemented all over the world, and they all still rely on humans.
Highly automated jobs in these fields will still need a human being to give a stamp of approval or to step in and correct problems, although humans will need to learn new processes of doing so. It’s much more cost-effective to retrain existing employees on these new systems than it would be to hire a brand new workforce.
Besides, does anyone feel truly fulfilled standing on an assembly line, turning the same repetitive widgets for eight to ten hours each day? Industry Week recently reported on a study that found that manufacturing workers are the least engaged at work, lagging behind other industry sectors by 8 percentage points. With more complex tasks and responsibilities unlocked by automation, work could become more engaging.
It’s a very real concern that jobs are being affected by new technologies. The only questions left are: in what ways, and what can be done to improve the human experience. This brings us to the second basic fact we mentioned earlier:
2. The workforce still needs humans.
Humans still have the upper hand when it comes to human interaction—or “soft skills,” as you might call them today. According to a recent report from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) called “Humans Wanted,” Canada’s top five most in-demand job skills from 2019 through 2022 are active listening, speaking, critical thinking, reading comprehension, and monitoring. (Virtually every other nation needs the same top five.) When it comes to these essential workforce skills, humans are still more reliable and more efficient than any technology. Even if you end up changing industries halfway through your career, maintaining and improving your abilities in these core areas will serve you well.
Not only is employee retraining or “reskilling” more cost-effective to employers, it benefits the long-term personal growth of employees. Looking a few years further down the road, education will become even more crucial than it is today. The existing workforce needs to continually reinvent themselves, “reskilling” on the job to learn new systems as technology evolves. As the older generation retires, younger generations must learn the legacy systems as well as adapt to changing technologies. Job-hopping is becoming more commonplace, and any program that contributes to employee training, personal development, and education will be one more reason for people to stick around.
What Does the Future Hold for You?
Instead of being concerned that a robot or machine will take your job, learn to be the human that builds, fixes, maintains, or programs the machines. The worst thing we can do is to feel helpless. At the current rate of technological change, we’ll likely need to keep learning for the rest of our careers, so we might as well embrace it. With the advent of new fields such as renewable energy, cloud computing, blockchain, and more, the right skills will ensure you the right job in tech.
Even if you aren’t interested in high-tech paths like software engineering, or if you like being outside and working with your hands, you can find a good job that's right for you. Cities all around the world are making investments in energy-efficient infrastructure and the growth of renewable energy—which means that jobs like solar panel installation, water/wastewater engineers and technicians, and civil engineers will always be in demand wherever you live.
Jobs in five to 10 years certainly won’t look like they do today. Some won’t exist. There will also be new job descriptions that we can’t even imagine today. As an automation professional who cares about the automation community, it will be up to you to create new opportunities to reskill yourself, your team, and those just starting their careers. You could start by signing up for an upcoming class from ISA Training, or mentoring someone in your field through the ISA Mentor Program. Employers also need to offer more on-the-job training, or risk losing their best employees to companies that do so.
The future is coming, whether we like it or not. We can weather its changes, and even thrive, but we need to begin now.
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