While there is a dialogue about the current employment situation in the country -- who has a job and who needs a job -- there is a part of the story that is being skirted: the role robotics is playing in our labor market.
Economists across the spectrum discuss the role smart machines are playing in the innovation and financial health of our country when the field questions on almost any topic. On Black Monday in 1987, one potential cause for this crash was program trading. It occurred when Wall Street was first automated during this time many positions were replaced with computers. While we are still a projected 20 years away from a personal robot like Rosie from the Jetsons, robots and computers are playing a more central role in the day-to-day lives of average Americans than ever before.
Frank Tobe is the creator of ROBO-STOX of the first global robotics ETF (NASDAQ: ROBO) and is also the owner and publisher of The Robot Report. When asked how the transition into robotics is going to impact our labor market he discussed a few career fields that met a robotic fate: travel agents and reservationists were among them. He sees going forward pilots and commercial drivers staring down a similar fate. He said, "It also seems true that as companies reduce hazards and lower insurance costs they take away boring jobs. This improves productivity and has lower spoilage. It makes jobs more desirable. Companies will be able to increase sales, and thereby need different types of workers. Needed fields are going to be sales, shipping, materials handling, expediting, engineering and design."
A recent Wanted Analytics study showed that demand for robotics skills increased 13% year-over-year from 2012 to 2013. Of the industries with the most robotics-related job ads, health care was up 23% and represented 65% of the overall demand.
Tobe said, "In the short term, robots that perform floor cleaning, lawn mowing, remote presence, apps on devices to monitor various health criteria, reminder apps to take and replenish pills, keep appointments, and devices that perform various physical and mental therapies are all likely.
Raj Batra, president of Industry Automation at Siemens Industry, said, "Since the early 2000s, automation and design software have begun to merge. Manufacturing software has become far more sophisticated. The result is an integration of the virtual and physical worlds." He spoke about today's modern factory and the factory of the future. "The advanced manufacturing facilities of today and tomorrow are clean and replete with robots, computers, lasers, and other ultramodern machine technologies. The most common tool a production worker carries at the newest auto plants in the Carolinas, Michigan, and Tennessee is not a wrench or screwdriver. It is an iPad. The new era of virtual-to-real manufacturing is upon us."
When Batra was asked about how this is going to affect the American worker, he had insightful comments and guidance. "As U.S. industry puts greater emphasis on smarter production, the skill sets required are different from those of the past. Understanding how to use software is a big part of it. Education in science, technology, engineering, and math are critically important. What we are seeing is the impact of Internet and connectivity on manufacturing in a way that it affected consumer networks and buying behavior during the dot.com boom. It has taken a little longer in the industrial setting because of the incredible complexity there. Building an airplane is a lot more complex than selling a book."
While it is uncertain what the future holds, one certain point is clear: we are on a rapidly moving ride. The technological advances which surround both products and people are happening fast. Jobs that existed for decades are slowly being replaced with machines, and the demand on the people who had those jobs is that they learn new skills. The hard truth is that there is road paved with learning ahead of us so we can exist in the seamless world that robotics and automation create.