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STOCKTON — For more than 40 years, robots have been at work in U.S. factories doing mainly routine, repetitive work. While the number of manufacturing jobs has gone down in this country, productivity has gone up.
Here in the Central Valley, automation has been important in distribution centers, such as Amazon.com, where robots often retrieve items from shelves for shipping, for example.
“Everything from wrapping pallets to self-programming robots,” said San Joaquin Partnership CEO Michael Ammann who recently saw the latest in manufacturing and distribution center automation on display at a Southern California trade show.
For example, vision software can now inspect everything from sheet metal to water bottle seals much more quickly and accurately than humans can.
“A lot of unskilled parts of the production process or inspection are going away,” Ammann said.
There is disagreement among economists about how many jobs will be lost to automation and other technology such as 3D printing, driverless cars and artificial intelligence.
Economist Tom Pogue of the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific notes that Amazon’s automation reinvented e-commerce, which brought thousands of jobs to the Central Valley but other jobs were lost in other retail sectors. Counting the winners and losers is complicated.
“While we have those jobs at Amazon, thinking about it in the broader context, how many jobs aren’t necessarily just being lost, but how many jobs aren’t being created in regular brick and mortar stores?” he said. “You see all the boxes being dropped off at your house and your neighbors’ house. It’s real, that transformation of shopping.”
However, most experts seem to agree that work itself is changing and workers need to prepare themselves and adapt.
A Pew Research study released last October analyzed Bureau of Labor data and found that employment is rising faster in jobs that require higher levels of preparation — more education, training and experience. In fact, the number of such jobs increased from 49 million in 1980 to 83 million in 2015.
The question is, educated how? And trained for what?
“You almost have to fall back on rules of thumb: if a person needs to be involved, then a person needs to be involved,” Pogue said. “So, things like nursing, the interpersonal services become obvious areas, particularly when they’re relatively high-paid.”
Two researchers at the Darden School of Business at University of Virginia have been thinking a lot about what the future holds for workers.
Katherine Ludwig and Ed Hess have written a new book on surviving the changing jobs landscape called “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.”
“McKinsey and Company did a study and found that if current technology was applied widespread, then a majority of jobs that people are currently paid to do would be automated,” said Ludwig in a telephone interview.
Ludwig and Hess cite research from the University of Oxford that says 47 percent of American jobs will be lost to automation in the next 15 years. Artificial intelligence and automation have already made their way into other sectors that many people thought were safe, such as law, accounting and medicine.
They say people who can change their mindset about work will be able to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
“It means a change in what the humans will be needed to do,” Ludwig said. “It’s things that computers and robots and artificial intelligence won’t be able to do.”
Many of those jobs will involve engaging socially and emotionally with other people, in nursing jobs, for example.
Ludwig and Hess call the change in mindset the “new smart” and soon people won’t be measured by how much they know but by the quality of their thinking, their ability to be open-minded, to collaborate and to be a lifelong learner.
“So, it’s a whole different view of what it means to be a smart, successful person,” Ludwig said.
Ammann believes opportunities exist for people who are willing to adapt. But they need to embrace technology and seek out training. He believes people who don’t finish high school will be vulnerable.
“My concern is not so much getting people to train for this or updating their skills, it’s the folks who don’t have any kind of threshold and just seem to think that there’s going to be some kind of unskilled position for them,” Ammann said. “We all have to progress. That’s all there is to it.”