Is Automation a Threat to the Manufacturing Workforce?

· by Herb Dew

Herb is the CEO of HTI. He founded HTI in 1999 along with John Knight and David Sewell, and remains heavily involved in the organization today.
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With almost 20 years of experience, HTI has seen enough in the Upstate and Global economies to know the only constant is change. Several factors play a role in maintaining a competitive edge in the Manufacturing Industry. Now automation is one more factor climbing the priority list. As we see companies increasing investment in automation, what does that mean to the company’s current workforce? Are they at risk of being replaced by progressive technology?

The Future of Manufacturing Automation

This new robotic fulfillment center in China provides the sneak peek into the possibility of the (almost) fully automated future. The center opened in early June funded by the Chinese E-commerce company A mere 4 employees staff the center and their job is to service the robots. Even so, the fulfillment center can organize, pack, and ship 200,000 orders a day.

Furthermore, a report conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that automation could lead to the loss of 800 million jobs worldwide by 2030. Though that outlook seems grim at best, I believe this is an opportunity to advance our workforce and our economy.

History Repeats Itself

An example of an industry that successfully navigated transitions due to technology is the agriculture industry. The advancements of machines decreased the demand for lower skilled labor. Inventions like tractors, and harvesting machines rendered 49 out of 50 employees unnecessary in the same roles. However it increased the demand for workers that could operate and maintain the new technology. Farms also recognized the opportunity to grow their own business which created more jobs.

Formerly a leader in the textile industry for over 100 years, South Carolina is now a state adapted to technology and automation as it relates to manufacturing.  Over a third of Manufacturing workers worked in lower-to-middle skilled textile jobs throughout the state during the textile era. Beginning in the late 1960s and into the 80s, the textile industry rapidly disappeared from North America, sharply affecting employment in South Carolina. Suddenly, thousands of textile workers were unemployed without similar jobs available as replacement. South Carolina, however, recognized the need to close the skills gap in our manufacturing workforce. They accomplished this through technical school programs as well as on the job training. This intentional positioning cued recognition of South Carolina proactively taking advantage of the advances in automation with a manufacturing mindset. This attracted higher technology industries like automotive and aerospace to come to the state. Thus, sparking the growth in the manufacturing industry and the rebuilding of the southeast. Now, thousands of employees that used to work in textiles are working at much higher pay rates in higher skilled jobs throughout the state because of South Carolina’s vision as it relates to automation in manufacturing.

Navigating the Transition

Today, there is less demand for low-skill workers and more demand for workers with at least a high-school diploma, associates degree, or apprentice education. This is the story not only in South Carolina and the Upstate, but across the United States. Rather than eliminating the demand for all workers, automation eliminates the demand for low-skill, low-wages workers. Meanwhile the demand for higher paid workers with more skills and education increases. If workers in the United States can rise to the challenge, the net result of automation could certainly be a more robust economy with higher paying jobs for all.

If manufacturing companies aspire to successfully navigate this transition they must master the art of meshing the existing workforce with automation technology. Fusing the world of HR with the world of science and engineering will drive the company forward in the most effective way. As existing tasks become the responsibility of machines, the company’s leadership must determine how to utilize employees for new roles. This means additional training and support from the leadership. It also means a willingness to humble oneself and come to the table with a learning mindset from the employee. As with any evolutionary cycle, those that don’t or can’t adapt will be left behind.