For decades, automation has loomed large over “unskilled” industries. We’ve all heard how one day, robots will serve our coffees, stock our shelves and ring through our groceries. This seemingly imminent trend primarily threatened minimum wage jobs in the service industry.
But what about skilled trades? How will a trend toward automation in manufacturing impact the job market and the skillset required of engineers and skilled tradespeople? This question, rarely asked, is key to understanding not only how automation will impact the lives of workers, but their industries at large.
The bottom line is this: engineers and skilled trade workers are facing a global shift in manufacturing industries as automation becomes cheaper, more efficient and more reliable than human labour. If you’ve seen footage from inside Tesla’s Gigafactory, you’ve seen the beginnings of this technology—agile, mutable robotics with extremely fine motor ability have been assembling the new generation of consumer vehicles, relying only on human supervision and quality control checks. As industries beyond the motor vehicle production line turn to new technologies such as those employed at Tesla, however, and especially as Baby Boomers begin to retire, there is a growing issue that faces workers and employers: a fundamental, structural realignment in the labour market.1
The truly brilliant and admirable aspects of tradeswork and engineering lies in the wealth of knowledge that those individuals must retain and employ every day. They are holders of extremely specialized knowledge without which the industrial, motive power and manufacturing sectors would grind to a halt. With the rise of the new skills economy, which places emphasis on skills that only humans can employ, however, that specialized knowledge is becoming less relevant.2 Returning to our Tesla example, if a series of robotic arms takes over welding the chassis to the frame of the vehicle, then the tradesperson who specialized in resistance spot welding now needs to learn and deploy new skills. This might include a turn toward hyper-specialization, where engineers and tradespeople zero in on a specific system of technologies; but it could also mean the education of more generalists to keep the plant floor running. The work may turn from welding vehicle frames to welding capital investments, like those robots, to keep the plant running when they need maintenance.
Implementing such technologies requires serious investment which, for now, remains out of reach for many players in the manufacturing sector. But as such systems continue to drop in price, companies will have to take advantage; those who remain technologically averse will be left behind.
Taking up new technologies offers the promise of unprecedented efficiency and sizeable profit margins. As such, the size of the labour force may shrink. But the choice to move toward automation in manufacturing industries is a necessary choice to make. Robotic arms, for example, don’t need lunch breaks. They don’t need health insurance, days off, or even any salary at all. With proper maintenance, they will likely work faster and make fewer mistakes than a human. In jobs where speed and precision are fundamental to good performance, the choice seems obvious. Because of these benefits, it is true that some human labour will likely be made obsolete. The threat is real; robots may truly be coming for more than just minimum wage jobs. But the news isn’t all bad.
As new technology reaches unprecedented levels of agility, intelligence and fine motor skills, skilled workers will find themselves in a new role: that of the supervisor. Workers will need to be proficient in mathematics and programming to supervise those robotic arms to ensure work is being done correctly.3 Whether or not these skills are yet being taught in schools, the pressure is on for institutions and companies alike to supply new information and train in new, specific skillsets in order to meet these quickening technological advancements.
So despite what seems like a looming decline in the engineering and skilled trade job markets as new technologies revolutionize factory floors, supervisory positions will always need to exist for quality control, maintenance and further advancements. Older engineers and skilled workers should anticipate the implementation of new technologies, while those still in school should anticipate a focus on flexibility and experience with automation.
It can be hard to embrace new technologies, especially when they seem so contrary and foreign to the spirit of so many skilled trades: that being precision work, often as part of a team. But pretending that this shift is not happening will only cost time, money and labour. So, while the jobs will always be there, in just a few years’ time they will likely look very different.