An Emerging Perspective
By Clarence Fortney
The pandemic created by COVID-19 has in many unexpected or unprepared ways significantly slowed or halted economic activity locally, nationally and globally. Small businesses, factories, industries and warehouses have been forced to shut down to protect their workers, while those that are essential struggle with preventing further outbreaks through distancing, mitigation and innovation.
Could a more technically skilled and automated workforce have reduced or alleviated the economic damage caused by COVID-19 and the possible measures undertaken to address its effect on today’s workforce? Studies have been conducted and reports released with supporting data on the changing landscape of the future workforce and the technically skilled expectations to meet the demands for tomorrow’s workforce.
In reality, today’s aging workforce is going to require new generations of technically skilled professionals to replace these current skills and include an updated understanding of expanding technologies and applications that are changing rapidly with varying degrees of automation and newer tools that shorten the time to delivery as well as lengthen the endurance of the product. Also, the salaries for these skilled, technology-driven occupations are on the rise as well.
Given the physical and mental health challenges caused by COVID-19 and other possible related issues, recent reports from The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimate that the cost of robots has decreased and continues to decrease which enables a wider application across the automation enterprise. For example, South Korea has seven robots per 100 workers and every third robot installed is in China.
A 2019 report by Oxford Economics predicted 12.5 million manufacturing jobs will be automated in China by 2030. Currently, as reported in late 2019, within the United States there are about 0.34 robots per every 1,000 workers but these numbers as reported in the media do vary depending on the location. In the aftermath of the pandemic, these numbers of robots could likely become many more.
What does this mean for the workforce today and tomorrow? As this horrible pandemic crisis spread across the globe, an unprecedented and unprepared reaction filled with fear and uneducated media headlines generated a frenzied dialogue that immediately harkened predictions of massive employment loss, financial instability through reallocation of prosperity and continues further political polarization.
Now that we are in the midst of a temporary high level of unemployment that hasn’t been caused by automation, the question I pose to you now is-how can technical skills training and automation accelerate our recovery and protect us from future pandemics?
Whereas, the larger question to ask is, has COVID-19 created an opportunity to reshape our educational system to train our future workforce? How do we focus current resources to develop new models for instruction and access to these emerging technologies for future generations?
We are doing this now, in part, through online programs and rewriting our educational syllabuses that must be better adapted to the Internet fiber optics of the now. States in the U.S. that have a larger area of rural populations have less access to fiber or wireless connections but that is changing now with current efforts.
At the same time, disadvantaged populations affected by lesser economies of scale are at a greater risk of being left behind unless local efforts and organizations can be identified to narrow this gap in access to relevant technologies and instruction.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been published estimates on the expected impact automation will have on technically skilled jobs and these estimates vary drastically. In one such estimate, McKinsey projected up to 30% of the workforce in the U.S. will be automated by 2030, and “automation and AI will lift productivity and economic growth, but millions of people worldwide may need to switch occupations or upgrade technical skills.”
Estimates from various sources, including the World Economic Forum (WEF), reflect that the emerging workforce resulting from automation could account for 6.1 million jobs globally between 2020 to 2022.
Considering how the global pandemic may in fact impact the workforce in the long-term, it’s safe to assume that we will see acceleration in automation where it keeps human workers and consumers safer and reduces greater health risks.
Prior to the crisis, the WEF reported that automation will generate “vast new opportunities for fulfilling people’s potential and aspirations.” Now there is considerable evidence that automation can protect humans. Consider logistics automation: it protects warehousing and delivery workers from being exposed to pathogens. Robots continuously cleaning hospitals avoid imperiling health workers.
A technically skilled workforce and automation are not mutually exclusive. To mitigate uncertainty as we further define applications for our way out of this pandemic, we must focus on all ages of our workforce achieving their full potential and aspirations. This means small business owners, elected officials, community volunteers, military leaders, veterans, entrepreneurs, institutions of higher learning, business leaders, investors, industry leaders and public policy shapers must all place a greater emphasis on our workforce and the customers they serve.
Great Plains Technology Center continues to be a technology leader committed to emerging needs to our society in modernization, innovation, business & industry services, technical skills training, higher education and automation in our district, area businesses and industries, Fort Sill, Army Futures Command’s Cross Functional Teams, FISTA and the community of Lawton-Fort Sill.
Clarence Fortney is Superintendent of Great Plains Technology Center.