Jayne Fifer

We are living in a time of an ever-expanding economy. To stay competitive manufacturers must produce a variety of top-quality, customized products while dealing with a shortage of skilled labor. One solution is automation. But some people are worried they will lose their jobs to robots. Is that true of manufacturing in Volusia and Flagler counties?

Our manufacturing community is as diverse in its level of automation as it is in the products we make here–with our more than 450 manufacturers

straddling the past and the future. You can walk into some companies, like Davita Kidney Care Labs which performs more than 47 million laboratory tests for patients across the country, and think you’re in the latest Star Wars film, while some companies look like they belong in “Back to the Future”.

No matter where manufactures are on the “automation continuum,” they are all dealing with our culture’s pervasive demand for immediate gratification. This is pushing manufacturers to produce more today, not tomorrow. As such, automation is not just a cost cutting measure, it is a necessity.

As machines become nimbler and computers can more easily input customer change orders, automation allows for easier customization of products while reducing costs. This is an obvious benefit to the company, but it’s also a benefit to employees. Companies who are able to produce more here, at a lower cost, have a reason to keep jobs at home and bring other jobs back from offshore.

Furthermore, automation reduces physical work and improves ergonomics for the worker. And the rate of the changeover to automation will give employees time to adapt and learn the new, higher-level skills needed – skills which command higher wages.

It is fascinating to see our manufacturers in transition. Recently, VMA members participating in a monthly plant tour had an opportunity to visit Hudson Technologies and speak with its president, Bret Schmitz. He said they are starting the process of automating because it is difficult to find entry level workers and the price of technology is coming down. Flexible, industrial robot arms now cost about $30,000 vs. $80-90,000 in the not too distant past, making them easier to acquire. Bret said they have not experienced any negative push back from the changes and not a single person has lost their job. He noted that there are new job skills required such as electro-mechanical automation engineers.

“Automation is not the end of work,” wrote Mark Muro, policy director, Brookings Institution, in a study he co-authored in January of this year. Most occupations will see specific tasks assumed by machines, but much of their labor will likely be enhanced, rather than fully replaced, through automation, the study found. That’s because automation rarely replaces entire jobs. The problem of automation then is not about the net loss of jobs, but about matching workers with the work.

Work as we know it is changing. News flash, it has always been changing. Think about the horse and buggy days or just the changes we’ve seen in the last couple of years. Many jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet. So the real question is, “What can employees do now to prepare for the next changes?” The answer, get good at what companies or industries need next. Ask employers what skills are currently hard to find and stay current on technology.

Take some advice from Deloitte Development, LLC, and The Manufacturing Institute. They have been tracking the skills gap and the future of work in the U.S. manufacturing industry for the past 17 years. Their fourth report, released in 2018, titled The Manufacturing Institute Skills Gap and Future of Work, found the gap increasing and impeding industry growth. Surveyed manufacturing executives highlighted the role of technology in the skills needed for the industry. There are a number of skill sets that could increase significantly over the next few years due to the influx of automation and advanced technologies. Those skill sets are technology/computer skills, digital skills, programming skills for robots/automation, working with tools and technology, and as always, critical thinking skills.

Our manufacturing industry is like a phoenix rising. Companies are growing; the aerospace industry is taking off; and more leaders in all industries see this community as a great place to move their companies.

So, should people be worried about losing their jobs to automation? Change is coming but there is time to prepare. One thing that can be counted on not to change is the fact that professional development is the individual’s responsibility. And, with that, I close with what I believe, “Manufacturing Rocks!”