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More Robots Coming and They're Getting Smarter

It’s time to talk about robots again. When I wrote this piece back in 2017 the primary thought was about robots and automation taking over many jobs in the low-end wage range, particularly with the talk by some politicians of a mandatory minimum wage of $15 per hour. However, even in the 2017 piece, I talked about only a handful of highly paid technicians being required for wind farms. Today robots are being used not only for those kinds of jobs, but also for higher paying jobs like machine operators and loaders. At the end of the article, I talk about displaced workers becoming entrepreneurs and contract workers. Today, with vaccine mandates for workers looming on the horizon, it won’t be just robots and automation displacing them from the ranks of employed workers.

Robots Are Getting Smarter by the Day

For our purposes today, we’ll use the term robots to represent the concepts of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Robots hold a promise to make life better and safer for many people. Our systems of making products and services available to a much wider spectrum of the world’s population can be greatly enhanced at a lower cost. But there’s at least one aspect that, while not exactly being ignored, is going to be a problem for which we are not yet seeking a solution. That is the effect on overall employment numbers in a coming automated global economy. For many community colleges and other institutions of higher education the robots are like invisible elephants in the room; the coming reduction in overall employment numbers never being discussed or explored.

Some New Technologies Don’t Need Training for Masses of Workers

Most colleges are affected by “institutional sluggishness.” Indeed, some don’t seem to realize that the very nature of work in the future is changing drastically. An example is that just a couple of years ago several community colleges in Kansas were in a clamor to create wind energy programs. The efficient availability of wind energy is an upcoming technology that promises to provide a substantial portion of the energy needed to run our homes and businesses. In the old economy, new technologies usually meant a need to train legions of technicians to keep the technology up and running. So, the colleges reasoned, wind energy programs would be required to train legions of wind energy technicians to keep the huge wind turbines running. Some people from ICC toured the turbines over near Beaumont a few years ago and learned that for all those turbines it only takes only eight to ten technicians to keep them up and running. The field at Beaumont is huge, I believe the cost to build was many hundreds of millions of dollars. If it only takes ten technicians, it seems like we don’t need very many community colleges churning out dozens of new wind energy technicians every year. In the future, all new technologies will have robotics and automation built in. This will lower the cost of operation and make the end product less expensive for everyone.

We Won’t Need Masses of Robot Technicians

Since wind energy is new, some colleges saw the problem before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the equipment, faculty and facilities to launch wind energy programs. What do we do about the existing industrial fields for which we’re cranking out thousands of technicians each year? There are people in all fields working to further automate the work with robotics, automation and artificial intelligence. This will eliminate jobs and that is what we are not talking about. When I mention this, some people say “Well, when there are robots, there will need to be people that can repair them and keep them running. We need to train people to work on robots.” While this is partially true it is not going to work for everyone. If a company of 500 people automates to the point only 250 are required to do the work, the company will not need 250 technicians to keep the automation up and running, but rather ten to fifteen. The remainder of the 250 will be let go.

Meanwhile, no matter how much automation there is, there will continue to be problems in the marketplace and our society that need to be solved. Automation will not cure all of our problems. A substantial part of the answer in the future, as huge portions of our work force are laid off due to robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, is to give people an entrepreneurial mindset and exposure to entrepreneurship along with technical training so that many of them can become independent business owners and contractors to solve the problems in the marketplace.


Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at www.fablabicc.org.



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