A recent broadcast segment by 60 Minutes titled “March of the Machines” highlighted the evolving roles of robots on shop floors, with an emphasis on how the rise of such machines and advanced automation is tied to job loss. Respective industry experts, including the Automation Industry Association, were quick to criticize the report.
With insight from two MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the 60 Minutes report addressed how a surge of advanced robotics is transforming the manufacturing process and spurring new categories of jobs, but it also honed in on the controversial side of robots — replacing middle skilled employees. These employees are being eliminated fastest from the workforce, according to the professors.
McAfee pointed out another reality. “There are heavily automated warehouses where there are very few or no people around,” he said.
While the newscast did highlight the efficiency of robots on American plant floors, it also revealed how the emergence of automation processes is outpacing employee demand, as managers struggle to find skilled workers and as those entering the workforce face a new set of skills to learn.
Yet the segment missed the larger picture of the benefits that robots bring, according to the Automation Industry Association. For instance, the association says the report did not depict how American companies are critically relying on automation to drive their competitive edge, Automation World reported.
“Automation has not only allowed us to bring more jobs back to the United States due to our ‘new’ cost structure but our profit margin has increased. This ultimately allows us to fund additional growth, which in turn creates more stateside jobs,” Matt Tyler, president and CEO of Vickers Engineering, was quoted as saying in the Automation World article.
Dr. William S. Howard, president of Stability Technology, who specializes in industrial machinery and equipment, acknowledges to IMT Career Journal that the manufacturing sector has seen an overall decline in employment, but echoes that robotics drive productivity and ultimately enhances competition. “The companies that don’t compete go under. If you don’t bring machines in, you fold your business and everybody gets laid off,” he said.
Howard says there is still a spectrum of jobs in manufacturing despite the emergence of robotic-driven, automated factory floors. “There are jobs that are associated with the sales and marketing that are still there, there are jobs associated with the management and jobs associated with the designing of the machines,” he said. “It is absolutely the case that for the guy at the machine, there are fewer and fewer of those jobs, but when you narrow it that tightly, you’re missing everything else.”
Last year, TIME also reported on robots. It explained how the programmable Baxter robot by Rethink Robotics can handle menial tasks so that workers are free to do more complicated jobs.
What is your position on robots: Are they a threat to industry jobs or a solution in today’s global competition?
View the full 60 Minutes segment here: