Features

Automatic employment

"Automatic employment" Continued...

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

The U.S. Department of Labor agrees. Last year in Illinois the agency invested $12.9 million to expand advanced manufacturing training to about 20 community colleges. The grant money will fund a statewide job placement program and even promote manufacturing among elementary-school youngsters using a mobile lab.

Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, says robots help prevent manufacturing jobs from going overseas to countries like China or India, where labor is cheap. By adopting automation, companies lower production costs enough to manufacture on U.S. soil and employ American workers. 

“It’s a question of, are we going to create jobs in Asia or are we going to create them in the U.S.?” adds Henrik Christensen, a robotics researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

When manufacturing jobs stay in the United States, there is a ripple effect on local businesses. Tyler of Vickers Engineering noted his company buys many raw materials locally, from companies in Indiana and Michigan. If he had moved his plant to another country, he’d likely be buying those materials there.

“We’ve never laid a single person off, ever, due to automation improvements,” says Tyler. Vickers currently employs about 175 workers in three shifts, and expects to grow to 225 in three years: “We expect our revenues to potentially double by then. … And that’s primarily due to automation.”

Vickers hosts internships with students from two local universities, Notre Dame and Kettering. The company hopes to draw younger workers into the field—such as 27-year-old Robert Rowles, a bearded employee I met at the New Troy plant.

Rowles told me he “bounced around” various labor and manufacturing jobs, including a dirty job making cinder blocks, before settling at Vickers in 2011. He never went to school to learn how to run robots, write code, or fix drill bits in computerized mills, but has learned all three skills on the job. To demonstrate, Rowles held up a small iron part, one of 300 he had finished milling hours earlier—the product of his first attempt at writing CNC code.

He likes the job because of the math involved: “As nerdy as it sounds … I think it is phenomenal.”

Workplace progress

©Mary Evans Picture Library/Tom Morgan/The Image Works

Fear that technology will destroy livelihoods has been around for generations. In the early 19th century, Englishmen frustrated with low wages began smashing textile machines, which were sometimes viewed as a threat to traditional jobs. They acquired the name Luddites and become symbols for anyone resisting technological progress.

Technology proponents argue progress doesn’t destroy jobs, but creates new ones: In 1900, 41 percent of Americans were employed in the agricultural industry, yet now only 2 percent are, thanks to tractors and combines. The rest are not unemployed but are working as airline pilots, software programmers, computer technicians, and a host of other jobs that would have been unimaginable before.

Some sectors, such as the automobile and electronics industries, are deeply dependant on robotics technology today. The International Federation of Robotics claims each robot currently in use has created three to five new jobs. The organization estimates 1.6 million robots globally will be operating by 2015.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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