He stands three feet, one-inch tall and weighs 165 pounds. He’s dependable and works well on teams and alone. He’s very productive especially performing tasks most employees don’t like to do such as stocking shelves and order picking. He doesn’t take breaks or vacation and doesn’t require health care and retirement benefits. He costs only about $3 per hour, less than half a minimum wage. Best of all he can work 24 hours per day, and seven days each week without violating labor laws!
The year 2014 may be remembered as the year robots entered the workforce in mass. Despite a very slow evolution, robots have become affordable. They may finally begin taking over the “three-D” jobs — dirty, dangerous, and dull — that most people do not ordinarily want to do. These are the same jobs that have been most challenging to fill and keep filled for companies in many industries.
Trends Magazine compares this robotic evolution to the introduction of the Model-T, which made automobiles affordable to the general public. Likewise, the Apple II personal computer opened up computing to everyday people. The introduction of two affordable commercial robots — Baxter and UBR1 — will allow even small and medium sized companies to adopt robotics and integrate them into their manufacturing and distribution processes.
The introduction of Baxter and UBR1 sounds like a gift from above to solve the skills gap challenging nearly every manufacturer, along with businesses in other industries such as healthcare and technology. It is projected that robotics will lower labor costs and boost productivity; just the catalyst U.S. companies need to regain momentum lost over the last decade.
Robots however could be both a blessing and a curse for business. The good news is that cost of robotics is plummeting. Up until now, the cost of conventional manufacturing robots — $285,000 to $400,000 — limited implementation to companies like Amazon. By streamlining features and improving technology, several upstart companies are making robots about 90 percent cheaper — $22,000 to $35,000. That’s pretty darn attractive since it compares closely to the annual salary for one employee! And that’s before benefits, time off, and turnover when the employee doesn’t work out.
But the deployment of robots may exacerbate unemployment and the skilled worker gap, not alleviate it — at least in the short-term.
First let’s talk unemployment. Yes, it’s true that every job filled by a robot replaces one to three human workers, especially for companies that work three shifts. Many if not most of these eliminated jobs are the jobs I mentioned earlier — dirty, dangerous, or dull. Currently these jobs are low-paying, have the highest turnover, and are filled by workers with low or basic skills. The elimination of these jobs will only add more low-skill workers to the unemployment lines. Edward Gordon, my friend, researcher, and author of over a dozen books about the changing workforce, projects that 150 million or more candidates will be vying for just 44 million low-pay, low-skill jobs.
It’s not only manufacturing jobs that will be eliminated as robots go mainstream. Robots are also being targeted for jobs with simple service tasks such as vacuuming, mopping, and lawn mowing. Jobs based on completing routine administrative tasks — organizing, sorting, retrieving, and manipulating information — can be replaced easily by computers. Tasks that require defined and repetitive physical movements are susceptible too. A team of researchers at Oxford University concluded that jobs held by 45 percent of Americans are at risk of being taken over by computers within 20 years.
On the bright side, this newest generation of robots is designed to work beside humans, not in place of them. Workers and robots will work as partners. Workers and robotics will interact with one another. Robots will depend on people to design, build, program, monitor, and repair them. Workers will become more productive, smarter, and effective. It’s estimated that automation has already created 10 million “human” jobs. These are at minimum semi-skilled jobs but quickly moving toward advanced skills.
Here’s the double-edged skill gap sword. These modified or new jobs could prove to be either a burden for companies struggling to recruit and retain the best and brightest, or a golden opportunity to trump the competition if they create a culture and a work environment that attracts the right employees.
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Likewise, for those workers who learn and grow their skills, the future is bright. Projections suggest tens of millions of new jobs will be created within 20 years. Robotics will likely create new job categories and new industries, many of which we have not imagined yet. Most of these new jobs will be high-paying and offer long-term opportunity.
Is the robotics/skilled labor glass half-full or half-empty? Much of the answer lies in whether you are visioning the future or reflecting on the past.
Watch more about Baxter on TED, below.