Robots or Job Training: Manufacturers Struggle to Improve Economic Fortunes

From today’s New York Times:

For Anthony Nighswander, rock-bottom unemployment is both a headache and an opportunity. For businesses and workers, it could be the key to reversing one of the country’s most vexing economic problems: slow productivity growth.

Mr. Nighswander is president of APT Manufacturing Solutions, which builds and installs robotic equipment to help other manufacturers automate their assembly lines. Lately, business has been booming: With the unemployment rate now below 4 percent, he says he gets calls every day from companies looking for robots to help ease their labor crunch.

The problem is that Mr. Nighswander faces a hiring challenge in his own business, especially because, in this town of fewer than 4,000 people near the Indiana border, the pool of skilled workers is shallow. But rather than turn to robots himself, he has adopted a lower-tech solution: training. APT has begun offering apprenticeships, covering the cost of college for its workers, and three years ago it started teaching manufacturing skills to high school students.

 “I never thought that I would be training high school students in our facilities,” Mr. Nighswander said. “What I knew was that I was in survival mode. I knew the orders for robots and for automation were coming in faster than I could get the jobs out.”
That kind of urgency could prove to be a powerful economic force. The investments in training and automation by Mr. Nighswander and his customers should, over time, make their companies more productive. Multiplied across thousands of companies, those decisions could have benefits for companies and workers that endure even after today’s hot economy inevitably cools.
Productivity — how much value the economy generates in an average hour of work — gets less public attention than more intuitive economic concepts such as employment and wages, but it may be even more fundamental.
Rising productivity — whether through better technology, more educated workers or smarter business strategies — is why people’s economic fortunes, on average, improve over time. When productivity growth is strong, companies can afford to pay workers more without eating into their own profit margins, letting a rising tide lift all boats.
Since the end of the Great Recession, however — and, to a lesser extent, even during the stronger economic times that preceded it — productivity growth has been confoundingly weak, forcing business owners and workers to compete over a relatively meager sliver of economic growth. There have been peaks and valleys, but not since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s has the American economy consistently delivered productivity growth above 2 percent a year.
Now some economists think a rebound could be on the way. For most of the recovery, wage growth has been anemic, suggesting companies faced relatively little pressure to invest in automation or to find other ways to squeeze more production out of workers. But as the labor market tightens, companies’ incentives could be changing.

Read the complete article here.

The Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

From the New York Times “Opinion” Section by Eric Loomis:

Employment numbers may look solid now, but economists, physicists and industrial engineers all say that automation will, in the not-so-distant future, drive higher unemployment. The Columbus Dispatch recently calculated that in Ohio, out of total state employment of about 5.5 million workers, 2.5 million jobs are at risk of automation.

How do we prepare for such disruption and the future of work? We might revisit an idea from the 1970s: a federal guarantee of employment. In recent weeks, three Democratic senators (and likely presidential contenders) — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have either expressed their approval of the idea or unveiled initial ideas about how an updated version could work.

They are building on the legacy of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, introduced in the 1970s by Senator Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, and Representative Augustus Hawkins, Democrat of California. In addition to the guarantee of employment, their initial bill allowed citizens to sue the government if they could not find a job.

Resurrecting Humphrey-Hawkins can help pre-empt a technology crisis and even future labor dislocation from globalization. In the original Humphrey-Hawkins bill — not the watered-down version that ultimately passed in 1978 — the president would submit an annual plan to Congress to achieve full employment, and local committees would coordinate job needs in their communities. The bill would have spurred private-sector job creation and a New Deal-style federal job creation program. Private employment would limit government investment, while federally mandated wage and price controls would fight inflation.

The final bill fell far short of this. Unions stripped out the wage and price controls in exchange for their support and put a priority on negotiating better contracts for their members over the fate of the nation’s poor. The Carter administration fretted about the potential impact on inflation from a bill without those controls. President Jimmy Carter never truly supported it, and the bill that passed committed the nation to ending inflation more than to full employment. Since then, the idea of full employment has largely disappeared from the American political system.

The arguments against Humphrey-Hawkins in 1978 are largely irrelevant today. After decades of low inflation, wage and price controls are unlikely to be problems. Mr. Booker’s pilot plan to test these ideas in 15 areas of the country builds on the Great Society belief in community control over federal resources.

Read the complete article here.

Automation Could Displace 800 Million Workers Worldwide By 2030, Study Says

From today’s National Public Radio:

A coming wave of job automation could force between 400 million and 800 million people worldwide out of a job in the next 13 years, according to a new study.

A report released this week from the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company forecasts scenarios in which 3 percent to 14 percent of workers around the world — in 75 million to 375 million jobs — will have to acquire new skills and switch occupations by 2030.

“There are few precedents” to the challenge of retraining hundreds of millions of workers in the middle of their careers, the report’s authors say.

The impact will vary between countries, depending on their wealth and types of jobs that currently exist in each. In 60 percent of jobs worldwide, “at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated,” McKinsey says, which would mean a big change in what people do day-to-day.

McKinsey looked at 46 countries and more than 800 different jobs in its research.

In the year 2030 in countries with “advanced economies,” a greater proportion of workers will need to learn new skills than in developing economies, researchers say. As many as a third of workers in the U.S. and Germany could need to learn new skills. For Japan, the number is almost 50 percent of the workforce, while in China it’s 12 percent.

Jobs that involve predictable, repetitive tasks are more easily automated, “such as operating machinery and preparing fast food,” and data processing, like paralegal work and accounting. However, McKinsey estimates less than 5 percent of jobs can be fully automated.

Jobs that pay “relatively lower wages” and aren’t as predictable are less likely to face full automation, because businesses don’t have as much incentive to spend on the technology. This applies to jobs like gardening, plumbing and child care, according to the authors.

Occupations that pay more but involve managing people and social interactions face less risk of automation due to the inherent difficulty in programming machines to do those types of tasks.

Read the complete article here.

Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?

From today’s New York Times:

Like a lot of children, my sons, Toby, 7, and Anton, 4, are obsessed with robots. In the children’s books they devour at bedtime, happy, helpful robots pop up more often than even dragons or dinosaurs. The other day I asked Toby why children like robots so much.

“Because they work for you,” he said.

What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is, someday he might work for them — or, I fear, might not work at all, because of them.

It is not just Elon MuskBill Gates and Stephen Hawking who are freaking out about the rise of invincible machines. Yes, robots have the potential to outsmart us and destroy the human race. But first, artificial intelligence could make countless professions obsolete by the time my sons reach their 20s.

You do not exactly need to be Marty McFly to see the obvious threats to our children’s future careers.

Say you dream of sending your daughter off to Yale School of Medicine to become a radiologist. And why not? Radiologists in New York typically earn about $470,000, according to Salary.com.

But that job is suddenly looking iffy as A.I. gets better at reading scans. A start-up called Arterys, to cite just one example, already has a program that can perform a magnetic-resonance imaging analysis of blood flow through a heart in just 15 seconds, compared with the 45 minutes required by humans.

Maybe she wants to be a surgeon, but that job may not be safe, either. Robots already assist surgeons in removing damaged organs and cancerous tissue, according to Scientific American. Last year, a prototype robotic surgeon called STAR (Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot) outperformed human surgeons in a test in which both had to repair the severed intestine of a live pig.

So perhaps your daughter detours to law school to become a rainmaking corporate lawyer. Skies are cloudy in that profession, too. Any legal job that involves lots of mundane document review (and that’s a lot of what lawyers do) is vulnerable.

Software programs are already being used by companies including JPMorgan Chase & Company to scan legal papers and predict what documents are relevant, saving lots of billable hours. Kira Systems, for example, has reportedly cut the time that some lawyers need to review contracts by 20 to 60 percent.

As a matter of professional survival, I would like to assure my children that journalism is immune, but that is clearly a delusion. The Associated Press already has used a software program from a company called Automated Insights to churn out passable copy covering Wall Street earnings and some college sports, and last year awarded the bots the minor league baseball beat.

What about other glamour jobs, like airline pilot? Well, last spring, a robotic co-pilot developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, flew and landed a simulated 737. I hardly count that as surprising, given that pilots of commercial Boeing 777s, according to one 2015 survey, only spend seven minutes during an average flight actually flying the thing. As we move into the era of driverless cars, can pilotless planes be far behind?

Then there is Wall Street, where robots are already doing their best to shove Gordon Gekko out of his corner office. Big banks are using software programs that can suggest bets, construct hedges and act as robo-economists, using natural language processing to parse central bank commentary to predict monetary policy, according to Bloomberg. BlackRock, the biggest fund company in the world, made waves earlier this year when it announced it was replacing some highly paid human stock pickers with computer algorithms.

So am I paranoid? Or not paranoid enough? A much-quoted 2013 study by the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science — surely the most sober of institutions — estimated that 47 percent of current jobs, including insurance underwriter, sports referee and loan officer, are at risk of falling victim to automation, perhaps within a decade or two.

Read the complete article here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.