Robots are one way to ease Minnesota’s labor shortage

Rochester Public Schools recently approved a bid of $562,548 for seven “advanced autonomous floor-scrubbing robots.” This, the Rochester Post Bulletin reports, “led to a discussion about the role of technology in the school district moving forward and whether it would have an impact on its human workforce.” We are told that “district leaders have clarified that they are not investing in technology to replace human workers.” If they can, they should.

Always remember that from the point of view of economic welfare what matters is improving per-worker productivity. I illustrated this in our most recent report on Minnesota’s economy with a parable about digging ditches, where I asked you to “imagine an economy whose only economic output is ditch digging”:

If we have a population of one and this worker produces one ditch a year with their bare hands, then annual output is one ditch per capita. If we add a second worker, total output rises to two ditches but per capita output remains one ditch per capita: nobody is better off…

We can make each worker more productive by giving him/her a shovel: increasing capital per worker. With this, each worker might dig 10 ditches a year. Total output would rise to 30 ditches, and per capita output would rise to 10 ditches per capita. Each shovel has increased output by nine ditches.

Indeed, substituting capital for labor, using tools so that one person can do a job previously done by a dozen, is one way that output per worker and, consequently, wages, have risen historically. Automation is a process which has been, on balance, vastly better for humankind than it has been bad.

Of course, this is hard on the eleven workers who are out of job, but forecasts of mass unemployment resulting from increased automation have not come true because new jobs are created. And these forecasts are even less of a concern when we are faced with a labor shortage, as Minnesota apparently is. If we are short of workers, then getting robots to do low skilled work will free those workers up to do more skilled, higher paid jobs.

The Chamber’s report notes that:

Fifty-seven percent (57%) of survey respondents expect automation to increase moderately or significantly in the next 1—3 years, and a plurality (32%) indicated that they would look to increase automation if they continue to face workforce shortages over time.

This is would be no bad thing. Again, increasing capital per worker is one way that output per worker and wages increase. If the outcome of the “labor shortage” is higher capital per worker and higher wages, it isn’t a problem to be solved but a phenomenon to be embraced.

If Rochester Public Schools can get robots to do this work, they shouldn’t let phantom concerns about unemployment deter them.