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A3 points to Amazon, GM to talk Robots, Job Creation

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing
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A3 President Jeff Burnstein speaking today at Automate in Chicago. (Photo by Brett Brune)

CHICAGO—There is a lot of noise around the issue of robotics and manufacturing jobs, some of it appearing in national business magazines like Forbes and Fortune, and one of the ways to quiet the voices claiming that automation kills jobs is to review the last seven years and to point to real-life examples of robotics applications keeping companies competitive, Association for Advancing Automation (A3) President Jeff Burnstein said today here at the Automate conference.

“Competitiveness is the key to job growth,” he said, promoting a new white paper A3 publicized today about automation and job growth. The paper is a free download.

Robotics help companies become more competitive in the global marketplace and grow their business, A3 said in the new white paper.

From 2010 to 2016, 136,748 robots were shipped to US customers—the most in any seven-year period in the US robotics industry, A3 said.

In that same period, manufacturing employment increased by 894,000 and the US unemployment rate fell to 4.7% in 2016 from 9.8% in 2010.

A3 pointed to two specific examples: Amazon and GM.

When it introduced robots in 2014, Amazon had more than 45,000 employees. “While the company continues to add robots to its operations, it has grown to over 90,000 employees, with a drive to hire more than 100,000 new people by the end of 2018,” the firm said in the white paper.

General Motors grew from 80,000 US employees in 2012 to 105,000 in 2016, while increasing the number of new US robot applications by about 10,000, A3 added. “We see similar results from multi-national companies with thousands of employees, to small manufacturing companies.”

Skilled workers are “key to companies’ success and countries’ economic development, but studies show an increasing skills gap with as many as two million jobs going unfilled in the US manufacturing industry alone in the next decade,” it added.

Pay is rising as a result, Burnstein said. In the manufacturing industry, the largest user of automation today, the skills gap is “driving up what are already strong wages and benefits, well over the US average,” A3 said in the white paper.

Finding good people is a giant challenge for manufacturers, Burnstein reminded today. It will help when fathers and mothers adjust to the fact that children need to be educated differently.

A stronger focus on apprenticeships will help fill the skills gap, he said. In its white paper, A3 said

employers are offering innovative training approaches that “give workers alternatives to the traditional (and expensive) high-school-to-college-to-job route.”

Honda in Ohio, which makes 14,000 cars a day, constantly reminds RAMTEC (Robotics & Advanced Manufacturing Training) Ohio that it needs more skilled workers, Ritch Ramey, coordinator at RAMTEC Ohio, said at Automate.

Honda and Whirlpool offer “great-paying jobs,” and RAMTEC is pursuing the students to fill the slots, he said, noting that SME is a partner. Industry partners, including FANUC, Universal Robots, Rockwell Automation, Yaskawa, Mitsubishi and Parker Hydraulics, create credentialing for students in high school—for free, he added.

ARM is on the case

Rebecca Hartley, chief workforce development officer at a startup Manufacturing USA entity called the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, is focused partly on small and medium enterprises, to help them develop a robotics “roadmap,” she said at Automate today.

She, too, mentioned apprenticeships, in the same breath as “sustainable careers in advanced manufacturing.”

Technician education—more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree—is a crucial pathway for the future, Hartley said. “Digital learning tools are very important” and the ARM Institute will look at that in terms of modules and virtual reality. “These are things that are exciting to students and help them learn.”

Education, training must expand

Paul Aiello, director of education at FANUC America, noted during A3’s presentation how many new companies pop up around the making and maintenance of robots as more and more are installed—creating new companies and new jobs “that never existed and continue to expand.”

Students need to learn about “high skills and high technology” in manufacturing—from manufacturers and other institutions that know it is no longer “dark and dirty” and monotonous.

Rather than holding information close to the vest, manufacturers have to reach out and open up, he said.

Part of educating the future workforce is to make it clear they can come out of college and quickly make $70,000-$90,000 a year, with benefits.

Companies that grow quickly need to think about employee retention—far beyond today’s challenges, Juan Garcia, global leader at Amazon Career Development, said.

To maximize engagement, one thing Amazon does is to each year offer each employee a couple of thousand dollars if they want to resign and pursue other interests. The timing is key, he suggested: The offer takes place right after the peak holiday shopping season that begins with Thanksgiving.

The offer forces conversations inside employees’ homes—where they either decide to take the offer or affirm that they like where they work.

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