Robots augment workers, not replace them

In June, I wrote that robots are one way to ease Minnesota’s labor shortage. An example comes from across the border in Wisconsin.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, writes that “Attracting and retaining skilled workers remains a leading worry for Wisconsin manufacturers,” something we hear often here in Minnesota. Citing a statewide survey of 415 manufacturing executives conducted this summer by the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, he notes that:

Asked about the leading barriers to success, attracting and keeping skilled workers emerged on top for the third straight year — especially for manufacturers with 50 or more employees. It was high for smaller firms, too, although the cost of materials ranked higher on their worrisome scale.

He goes on:

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (64%) said automation is either important or very important to the future of their company. A higher share of large manufacturers said automation was important, but the percentage was also on the rise for small firms.

Worries that automation will destroy jobs also find little support. In fact:

Buckley Brinkman, executive director at WCMP, said workforce challenges have changed how many companies view traditional staffing patterns. Rather than laying off workers during slow times, for example, companies might choose to keep employees versus venturing out later in a tight hiring pool.

Such trends may help to explain the declining percentage of executives who said finding workers is “very difficult,” especially among the larger companies. That may be linked to strategies such as higher pay, better benefits and other changes in the work environment.

This is how it is supposed to work. As I wrote in June:

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.

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.