With big goals, initiative hopes to prove robots create and complement jobs
Recently in Lawrenceville, Pa., roboticists sat alongside executives of some of the largest manufacturing companies in the country, as hundreds gathered to start a $260 million national initiative headquartered in Pittsburgh.
The matchmaking effort aims to dramatically increase robots and automation on U.S. production lines. But a second piece of the initiative's mission involves a very different kind of engineering challenge: keeping and growing human jobs along the way.
"We are trying to create jobs because of the new technology and the new skills that will be needed," said Rebecca Hartley, director of operations for the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development in South Carolina.
"We have to do this by the numbers," she added. "How many credentials do we create? How many students do we have enrolled in those programs? How many students do we have enrolled in apprenticeships? How many students are getting jobs? How many incumbent workers are getting new jobs because of new training?"
It's a tall order for Hartley, who was brought on as the chief workforce officer for the Advanced Robotics in Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University that in January won an $80 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.
Questions loom over the effects automation has had on the American workforce - a topic that for years has been the subject of debate among economists and policy-makers. While machines have allowed workers to become more productive and companies to lower their costs, the technology has also made some jobs obsolete.
Occupations across the spectrum are seeing increasing automation, but manufacturing is especially exposed to non-human help - and vulnerable to job losses. One recent study found that as the average U.S. manufacturing worker churned out 68 percent more products from 2000 to 2010, employers eliminated 8.2 million jobs that economists had expected to exist.
Companies and proponents of automation partly blame any job losses on what they call a persistent skills gap, and they look to training and education programs to prepare a new generation of workers.
By tracking workforce needs on a national scale, Hartley and others hope the new ARM Institute can prove that improved efficiency can breathe life into manufacturing.
"We believe robots and automation technology are going to save and create jobs," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based trade group of robotics developers.
A recent study from the group showed manufacturing jobs have grown by 900,000 - even as a record number of robots were shipped. Burnstein said he likes to flip the script on the notion that robots are killing jobs: "What would happen if we didn't automate? How many jobs would be lost?"
A NEW WAY OF LEARNING
Hartley hails from South Carolina, a state that decades ago was home to a thriving textile industry. Like the steel industry collapse in Pittsburgh, she said, textile mills in the southern state shuttered amid an industry collapse beginning in the 1970s.
Memories of lost jobs and tough factory conditions have stuck with older residents, she said, and people tend to steer their children away from goods-producing industry.
"They don't want anything to do with manufacturing because it reminds them of something that's not sustainable," she said. "So it's a perception issue to really show them what advanced manufacturing is."
She has been doing that in her job with Clemson University, which, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has worked to design educational materials for two-year colleges and companies in the advanced manufacturing industry. Among other programs, the group has developed virtual reality courses that give students a perspective into how new machines and equipment works.
At the ARM Institute, she said early talks with industry have revealed a desire to break down negative stereotypes and to show students the future of manufacturing is a wide open field.
Over the next five years, the institute plans to develop short-term certifications or credentials in robotics and automation - something that does not yet exist and that companies have sought for years, Hartley said.
A similar plan using so-called "stackable credentials" was developed for the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania at ShaleNet, a training program founded in 2010.
"That's something a student can build on," Hartley said.
Hartley acknowledged that job creation, particularly this early in the endeavor, is a moving target. Jackie Erickson, a spokeswoman for the ARM Institute, said she couldn't provide exact numbers but workforce development "is very high priority" for the Defense Department. The institute plans to recruit military veterans returning to civilian life who have technical skills.
At the gathering at the school's National Robotics Engineering Center, ARM Institute leaders began recruiting private sector partners to become members - and get at least the $173 million in contributions required as part of the federal grant.
When the institute garnered more than 200 commitment letters for its grant application, many were from colleges, universities and other nonprofits in education and workforce development.
Education partners so far have agreed to spend $88 million to the manufacturing companies' $41 million, according to numbers shared during the meeting by Gary Fedder, the institute's CEO.
PRESSURE ON POLICY-MAKERS
Economists and academic researchers who pin job losses on automation are encouraged by the institute's endeavor.
Michael J. Hicks, an economic professor at Ball State University, found nearly nine in 10 manufacturing jobs evaporated between 2000 and 2010 as factories became more efficient and automated.
Just one in 10 jobs was lost because of trade policy, according to his study, which was published in 2015 and has received national attention amid the push to bring back manufacturing jobs.
That's not to say he discounts robotics from eventually bringing a new wave of jobs. When early manufacturing first sprung into the Midwestern states in the late 1800s, it drew in workers from predominantly simpler, agricultural jobs.
"The same thing could happen in some other sector," he said. "We're going to have automation, but we don't know what that next big sector is going to be."
The ARM Institute also has the potential to create central sources of workforce information for government, suggested Tom Mitchell, a professor of machine learning at CMU. Mitchell released a study claiming that policy-makers are "flying blind" as robotics disrupts the workplace.
"You can imagine a scenario where they add up to more manufacturing jobs in the U.S., but you can also imagine a scenario where they don't," he said. "The situation is not so straightforward to me, because now I can see all these different forces at work.
"We have some choices; there are policies that can make a difference."
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