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Automation's Effect on Jobs

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There’s been no shortage of discussion over the past decade about the impact automation has had on manufacturing jobs. To uncover the industry’s current state of mind on this topic, Editor-in-Chief Gary Mintchell put the question to the Automation World discussion forum on LinkedIn. 
More than a few people think that automation has been as largely responsible for the reduction in the American manufacturing workforce as offshoring. But many Chinese would disagree, as they too have seen how factories can now produce more goods with fewer workers.
In an effort to see how engineers, automation suppliers and the industry at large currently feel about this issue, the following question was posted to the Automation World discussion forum on LinkedIn: How does automation create good jobs? Or does it eliminate manufacturing jobs?
The group can be accessed at: http://bit.ly/automationworld.
“Automation creates more jobs that are technical in nature instead of a person loading parts all day,” responded Seth Warnke, a controls technician at Nammo Talley Inc. “Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was working for an OEM, we all joked that we built machines to replace humans. That wasn't really the case, people had to learn new jobs and companies had to make sure that they had the proper training for their techs to do the job of troubleshooting.”
Some group members noted that they have seen automation create more jobs – both technical and non-technical. 
In addition to eliminating the more repetitive jobs formerly performed by people, the advantage to automation is that production can be increased without increasing labor costs, said Marc Emmerke, engineer at Sony DADC. “More production means more money. More money means more equipment. More equipment means more jobs,” he said. “The company I work for now has seen an annual increase in jobs from a starting point of 200 to more than 1,500 over the years. Many of the added jobs in this facility are not technical in nature.”
John Berra, past chairman of Emerson Process Management, added that, from his perspective, automation creates good jobs around the world by creating new jobs in new industries that, in many cases, can more than offset those lost to automation in production centers.
“Large [suppliers] like Emerson Process Management have over 30,000 employees. The supplier community is a place where there are thousands of innovative small companies,” Berra said. “Then you have the engineering contractor community. All of the EPCs have automation groups for design and also engineers and technicians that work on installation and start up. Then there is the actual end user community, where again there are people dedicated to automation. Most of these jobs are highly technical.
“The common wisdom is to accuse automation of reducing operators in plants,” he said. “[But] in the process world, there were never that many operators in the control room. Distributed control with the use of screens instead of panel boards did reduce some operators, but it also created many more jobs in the supplier and EPC community.”

Finally, one member weighed in with the reminder that no industry remains static forever. “Change in the make-up of our workforce is inevitable,” said Kerry Crozier, software and services specialist at Rexel. “Farming jobs are a good example. In 1900, approximately 38% of U.S. residents were farmers (according to U.S. government statistics), but today only about 1% of U.S. residents are farmers and we have much greater food production. We know that this [change] was due to a workforce shift and not a loss of 37% of U.S. jobs since unemployment is not 37%. This analogy applies to the manufacturing industry in the same way [and it] is why education is becoming more and more crucial today. Over time there will be less and less manual labor jobs available.”

This discussion and many others, ranging from technologies and best practices to employment and education issues – but all focused on automation – are just getting started on the Automation World LinkedIn group. So feel free to stop by and join the conversation at http://bit.ly/automationworld.

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David Greenfield, [email protected], is Media & Events Director for Automation World magazine.

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