Robotics will drive job growth, study finds

Global research finds mid-sized manufacturers will benefit—if they can find workers.

By Bill Wasilewski, Day & Zimmermann August 19, 2018
A new study by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) found that the surge in robotics in manufacturing actually is creating jobs and offering new kinds of skilled work for more people around the world. The study also found that while some Western cultures are concerned about robots replacing human jobs, other countries are actually providing incentives for training and workforce development to encourage the new skilled workforce.
“There is no historical evidence of technology being detrimental to aggregate employment levels,” study authors wrote in their IFR position paper released May 30. “It is notable that public attitudes to robots and automation differ between countries—not only between developed and developing economies, but also within developed economies.”
The IFR report’s outlook is bright, even if it finds countries and manufacturers are not yet prepared for the robotics revolution. “It is a picture in which small-to-medium-sized companies (SMEs), which account for over 90% of businesses in most economies, are better able to compete, and to assume new roles in global supply chains,” the report stated. “It is also a future for which most societies are currently unprepared.”
The authors noted some countries are trying unique ways to bolster their skilled workforce. Singapore, for example, gives each of its citizens over the age of 25 a $345 credit to pay for training courses from a list of 500 providers. The country’s SkillsFuture program surveys industries on the next trends in industry and creates “industry transformation maps” to help guide workers on potential new jobs.
The IFR study surveyed 7,000 employees in seven countries. Among the study’s findings:
    • Automation is driving job creation. Despite fears reflected in media articles, there is no concrete evidence that automation is different in its impact on employment from the previous waves of technology-driven change over the centuries which led to a mix of job displacement, job creation, and changing job profiles. What may be different this time is the pace of change in job profiles and skills requirements which seems to be faster than in the past, as evidenced by the fact that, according to recruitment company Manpower, 65% of the jobs that today’s children will perform do not exist yet. This aggressive pace of change combines with the effects of globalization, particularly the outsourcing of jobs to cheaper countries and to temporary labor, with an ensuing decline in job security and downward pressure on wages in many job types, to create insecurity. 
    Human labor will remain competitive. The fact that tasks can be automated in theory by no means implies they will be in practice – the decision to do this will be influenced by many factors, including the size of company and geography as well as the cost and payback period of investing in automation technologies. Most experts believe humans will remain central to successful automation strategies. Companies must assess where technology can bring highest returns, as well as where human experience, even in routine tasks, provides competitive advantage. 
    • Most experts in the three industries covered in this report – manufacturing, logistics and healthcare – predict a future in which humans and machines will work together. Productivity increases and competitive advantage will increasingly depend on a company’s ability to design and implement processes in which humans and machines work together. 
    • Automation can create rewarding (in terms of both job satisfaction and salary) job profiles for workers in the three industries covered in this report. A higher variety of tasks, work in multi-disciplinary teams, decentralized management structures, and worker autonomy in task and process planning and decision-making are all attributes of the job profiles that will result from a focus on effective human-cyber-physical systems. 
    • Robots make work safer and less physically demanding. Robots already carry out a variety of dangerous tasks. New developments in collaborative robots and exoskeletons will reduce chronic health complaints associated with unergonomic tasks, particularly heavy lifting. 
    • A shortage of qualified employees is holding back growth. Whilst levels of employment are regaining pre-recession levels in most countries, significant skills gaps already exist in our three focus industries (among others) that will increase unless corrective action is taken. 
    • Process expertise is as, or more important than pure IT skills in manufacturing and logistics. Whilst almost all industries are calling for a greater supply of digital skills, manufacturers find process knowledge takes far longer to acquire. 
    • Experts call for tighter collaboration between industry, government and educational institutions to equip the coming and existing workforce with both the soft skills needed for new job profiles as well as practical expertise and applied technical skills. More sector-specific, public-private sector education initiatives are needed to ensure SMEs, many of which can’t afford to invest in training, can benefit. The question of who will fund these initiatives remains open. 
    • Governments will need to develop policy incentives to encourage corporate investment in training, and/or step up their funding of education. They should continue a trend in many countries of focusing, through dialogue with the private sector, on training for skills for which demand is forecast and in industries in which the country or region demonstrates competitive advantage. 

Bill Wasilewski is president of Process and Industrial for Day & Zimmermann.