There's a "fundamental misunderstanding about what the job-killers are," says Jeff Burnstein, Association for Advanced Automation President. "The number one job killer in the world is if you work for a company that can't compete. That's when the jobs go away." So how do companies compete better in today's economy? Automation.
One of the greatest growth areas is in collaborative robots that safely work side-by-side with humans.
Robotics offers U.S. manufacturers improvements in efficiency that are driving up profits and employment. At the same time, automation -- along with changes in domestic workforces and rising overseas labor costs -- is positioning the next wave of productivity and job growth in the U.S. while opening up new opportunities for worker advancement. According to recent figures, there is a strong correlation between robotics implementation and employment growth.
Robots Help Bring Jobs Back to the U.S.
In the 2000's, brand-name U.S. multinational corporations cut their domestic workforces by 2.9 million while increasing their overseas employment by 2.4 million according to the U.S. Department of Commerce -- typically to take advantage of dramatically lower labor costs.
According to Working America's report Sending Jobs Overseas: The Cost to America's Economy and Working Families: "Between August 2000 and February 2004, manufacturing jobs were lost for a stunning 43 consecutive months -- the longest such stretch since the Great Depression. Manufacturing plants have also declined sharply in the last decade, shrinking by more than 51,000 plants, or 12.5 percent, between 1998 and 2008." As low labor rates tempted U.S. companies to take their manufacturing operations overseas, U.S. manufacturing jobs steadily declined.
Industrial Robot Shipments vs. Nonfarm Employment (1996-2014)
The trend of outsourcing manufacturing operations offshore is beginning to shift, however. With rapidly rising labor costs in countries such as China, where the advantage of productivity-adjusted wages has been cut in half since 2005, manufacturers are seeing erosion in the cost advantages of manufacturing outside the U.S.
Automation is helping companies remain cost-competitive while keeping their manufacturing operations in the U.S. Geoff Escalette, CEO of RSS Manufacturing & Phylrich in Costa Mesa, CA, states that automation is helping the company keep and create new manufacturing jobs in the U.S. "The whole premise for our company is to bring manufacturing back to this country. Our new robot fits perfectly within that master plan."
Robots Take on Dangerous, Repetitive Jobs, Giving Workers New Opportunities
Meanwhile, in the U.S. the drive for higher education in the manufacturing industry is producing a wave of employees who want rewarding, career-oriented jobs that are interesting and safe and that offer opportunities for advancement. Those desires often mirror employers' concerns.
Robots offer exciting new opportunities for a career-oriented, skilled labor force.
Tedious, manual jobs tend to have high turnover, which drives up costs for recruiting and training, while workers who stay in those positions can drag down productivity with low morale. Repetitive operations can make it difficult for human workers to maintain consistent output quality, and the use of potentially dangerous equipment can lead to on-the-job injuries.
But as manufacturers use robotics to automate repetitive, dull, dangerous, and low-wage jobs, manufacturing is regaining its appeal for people seeking technical positions -- especially those who are excited about learning to use robots. Jordan Klint, senior automation engineer at Vickers Engineering in Michigan says, "In order to bring young people into the business, you have to have technology. The guys who report to me really enjoy the robotics side. They think robots are cool."
Importantly, robots can also improve employee safety. In fact, of the thousands of fatal work injuries that occur in the U.S. every year, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there has been roughly one fatality a year in the past 15 years that has involved industrial robots.
Robots can protect workers from physically demanding or dangerous jobs.
As we move forward, a critical variable is providing the right technical education for prospective employees in order to meet demand. According to a skills-gap report by Deloitte, manufacturers will need to fill 3.4 million jobs over the next decade, with only 1. 4 million qualified workers available. In response, automation professionals are working to grow the educational curriculum for robotics to help populate the manufacturing sector with a new generation of technically trained employees.
Exploit Technology, Not People
U.S. manufacturing is a complex industry that is shaped by outsourcing, the shifting desires of our increasingly educated workforce, and the demands for manufacturers to be more competitive in today's worldwide markets. One element that impacts all of these variables is automation, which will be key to manufacturing's revival in the United States.
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