Stacey: Well, it seems we all survived the mid-term elections in spite of the robots.
Ed: Robots, what robots?
Stacey: Robo-calls. Those annoying automatic messages from the candidates trying to get you to believe they know you personally and are here to help.
Ed: I’m not sure I’d think of robo-calls as robots. When I think robots, I think Baxter the Robot from Rethink Robotics, or robotic press brakes, or my kid’s favorite, Rodney Copperbottom from the movie, “Robots.” All really cool and interesting robots.
Stacey: Yes, they are super cool, and the next stage will certainly be cyborgs, don’t you think? Today’s robots come in all shapes and sizes and are designed for many purposes. For example, if you are a woman of a certain age, like me, and can’t find someone to help with the groceries, there’s now Budgee from Five Elements Robotics. Budgee won’t just carry your groceries, but by 2015 could also ring them up and take them to your car. It’s nice to know that someone has invented a robot with manners.
Ed: Manners are always important, but wouldn’t you prefer a friend to carry your things? You can’t get snappy repartee from a robot. Or maybe you can. My point is that there’s a time and a place for robots and automation, but it’s people who are the vital element in making sure that robots are reaching maximum potential, not the other way around.
Stacey: Yes, that’s a good point. And those robots won’t smile back at me when I thank them for carrying my groceries and ask them to dinner.
Ed: No, they won’t. But automation (e.g., robots) in jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, is changing the demands on those who use sophisticated systems and machine tools to make their products. For example, programming skills are vital in order to interface with the software that drives the productivity of machines. It takes imagination to stretch the automation to its limits, especially in flexible sheet metal processing — and that’s all human supplied. Certainly automating dangerous tasks to keep people safe is a smart way to use technology. And I like Thai food.
Stacey: But what about the skills shortages in manufacturing? Sounds like we’ll need robots and humans.
Ed: It’s a real issue and one that is here to stay for a while, though progress is being made. Manufacturers by their very nature are the type of people who are self-reliant. Many are providing the necessary training to the younger folks who’ve come to work for them. Finding the next-generation workforce is challenging, because the primary and secondary education system has emphasized preparation for a four-year college. Not everyone wants to or needs to attend a four-year college to get a good-paying, family-supporting job. Community colleges and technical colleges are offering excellent programs, and in many cases at an 80 percent discount to four-year universities. These are the education paths we need more people to consider. Given the price tag of education, there is great value to these programs. Plus, the skills are cool, and you get to work with robots.
Stacey: I’m all for that. But I also think that if businesses paid a bit more attention to the way they hire people — say by looking at their business goals and then choosing applicants based on business goals rather than simply warm bodies — then we would be able to create transparent talent pipelines. And not just for the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), but for the small businesses as well.
Ed: It can be easy to generalize about “warm bodies,” what comes into play is the pool of applicants and the location of the employer. Sometimes the pool is small, so employers have to make trade-offs to get people on board. When you’re up against a production deadline and need staff, sometimes you can only wait so long for “Mr. or Miss Right” to arrive. Back to my earlier comment, manufactures are the kind of folks who aren’t in business to wait around for things to happen. They make things happen.
Stacey: Got it. And I can’t wait for Budgee to get to 2.0. So would you be so kind as to carry my groceries, please?
Stacey Jarrett Wagner is a principal with The JarrettWagner Group, LLC. She has more than 20 years of experience in workforce development, conducting research and providing strategic thinking and technical assistance on workforce development issues.
Edward Youdell is the President and CEO of the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, International.