Employees sort parcels with automated guided vehicles (AGVs) at a logistic centre of a postal service in China last November. Image: REUTERS / China Stringer Network
Manufacturing as we know it isn’t quite dead – but it will be soon. We’re at the cusp of a major transformation where the classic factory worker’s tasks will soon be digitized and managed by robots and intelligent software.
Human jobs have been sacrificed through every major industrial revolution and this change will be no different. Unfortunately, the speed at which this next displacement is taking place exceeds the speed at which people are being retrained for the new factory roles that are now required. In this environment, technology companies will have new responsibilities to reskill their workforce and the workforces impacted by their products.
The current state (and impact) of factory automation
New automation technologies gain more traction each year. In 2018, there were more than 40,000 industrial robots deployed across US factories - a 22% increase from the year prior. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report noted that machines and algorithms will contribute 42% of total task hours in 2022.
Though tech companies are building cost-efficient and highly productive solutions, the unintended consequences of displacing factory workforces will gradually leave a sizable dent in the global economy.
While one worker might manage 1-2 machines today, that worker might handle 10 or 20 when CNC machines, 3D printers, robots, AGVs, automated warehouses, and intelligent software become more pervasive in factories. As a result, robotics and automation could lead to the displacement of 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030, according to Oxford Economics.
A new opportunity for manufacturers
Instead of equating automation with job displacement, manufacturers should approach modernization as a means of freeing up factory workers to fill more productive and meaningful roles. In fact, it is predicted that up to 133 million new roles may emerge as companies embrace automation and uncover new opportunities for humans to work alongside machines.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
As the labor relationship between humans and machines evolves, so does the set of skills required. Workers can’t be retrained with a flip of a switch and consistent, proactive reskilling efforts over time are necessary in order to both safeguard workers and support the future needs of advanced manufacturing companies.
This approach to training won’t just serve workers. It will also serve a global population that will benefit from employed workers companies that can innovate more quickly with a better trained workforce.
Experts agree. “Continuous training and full worker engagement” is essential for the benefits of advanced manufacturing “to be fully realized and shared broadly and equitably among workers, consumers, firms and societies,” wrote MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Thomas Kochan in one recent paper.
Broadly speaking, companies are already starting to take creative approaches to reskill their staff. Amazon’s 16-week certificate program allows employees from fulfillment centers the opportunity to learn a new skill, all while keeping their job and accessing higher wages.
Manufacturing companies have begun to take on the reskilling challenge. Stanley Black & Decker, a manufacturer of industrial tools and household hardware, has committed to retraining 10 million factory workers by 2030 through a special program comprised of best practices to educate employees across all levels.
In fact, a quarter of U.S. manufacturers are retraining teams for AI and robotics related roles, according to Deloitte’s recent Global Human Capital Trends report. Nearly a tenth of current retraining efforts are dedicated to managing that robotic workforce, that research finds.
Robotics and automation could lead to the displacement of 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030”
Where technology companies fit in
Reskilling an entire workforce, of course, is no small feat and not the responsibility of any one party. Success relies on support from a complex web of institutions from government, to industry, to academia. Still, technology companies can play a more proactive role by considering the following factors.
• Research: Understanding the real impact of your automation technology is critical for informing reskilling efforts. Maintaining an open line of communication with customers can help companies monitor, identify and track skills gaps and requirements resulting from the deployment for your products.
• Partnerships: Identifying and forging partnerships with local stakeholders (i.e. technical colleges, labor unions, etc.) can provide at-risk factory workers with access to on-the-ground training and certification programs. For example: Non-profits, such as Pennsylvania’s Manufacturers Resource Center, provides manufacturers with training and mentorship programs as well as funding assistance.
• Pilot programs: Partnering with customers to implement pilot reskilling programs can provide practical, on-the-ground training for workers on how to use new automation tools effectively.
How one tech company is tackling reskilling
New approaches to coming automation shifts are driving fresh solutions. Shimmy, a Brooklyn, New York-based fashion technology company, introduced AI and data to reskill the very workforce its technology displaces. It developed a software product that provides garment workers with the digital skills – including digital pattern making and 3D modeling - they need to take on higher paying, more meaningful roles in the fashion industry. With this training, workers can shift from roles like sewing machine operators to more technical jobs that are less vulnerable to automation.
Despite common belief that the reskilling process can be difficult for workers who’ve had limited exposure to digital technology, much of the training is quite simple – and successful. According to Shimmy, most testers completed their digital training within 40 minutes, including those from countries where 10 out of 11 had never used a computer.
This people-first approach offers a variety of advantages. It protects garment workers, first and foremost. It also allows apparel manufacturers to increase capacity by de-risking new machine purchases and managing human capital more effectively.
Automation will bring big shifts, displacing millions of workers in just the next decade. Tech companies, on the forefront of these changes, should be accountable for their role in this saga, and help shape the solutions to come.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.