The Workers Who Are Most Likely To Lose Their Jobs To Robots (#GotBitcoin?)
Factory workers and truck drivers have been the faces of the nation’s automation fears to date. And with good reason: Each occupation is a mainstay of middle-aged male work and genuinely threatened by robots or artificial intelligence (AI). The Workers Who Are Most Likely To Lose Their Jobs To Robots (#GotBitcoin?)
However, as the summer job season kicks off, our research at the Brookings Institution highlights a different demographic concern. By our calculations, no group faces higher vulnerability to automation and AI than young people–workers aged 16-24. And that’s a problem.
Early summer and postcollege jobs are a rite of passage for young people. Such jobs are pivotal moments when young people learn to engage in work and life as productive, participating adults.
Think of your first job. (Mine was at the Herfy’s burger chain in Seattle.) Along with the boredom and goofing around, working in an oftentimes dull and repetitive entry-level job, whether in retail or fast food, has remained one of the main ways American teens build workaday habits, learn how to show up, appreciate the value of a dollar. Even mundane early jobs have value as links to the world of work. Likewise, young people’s first jobs create important pathways to later work. Such experiences matter, and they matter especially for nonwhite, lower-income workers.
And yet, such jobs are now potentially threatened. To be sure, our recent study is not one of the most frightening of the automation analyses out there. It offers relatively encouraging overall assessments of workers’ exposure to workplace automation. In fact, our analysis shows that a bachelor’s degree will provide stability to many workers, given that only 8% of workers with such a credential face “high” disruption threats given present technology.
However, significant occupational, geographical and demographic variation lies beneath the relatively manageable aggregate figures and bears heavily on the job prospects of the young. For example, the sharp segmentation of the labor market by gender, age and race ensures that some demographic groups are much more concentrated than others in the kinds of low-paying, and repetitive work most susceptible to automation.
Most notably, we find that nearly half (49%) of the current work now being done by workers aged 16 to 24 could be automated through the adoption of current technologies. Specifically, nearly 30% of young workers are engaged in “high-risk” jobs with over 70% of their current tasks categorized as automatable. These figures are much higher than the exposure rates faced by prime-age workers.
What are these vulnerable jobs? You guessed it: Young workers’ inordinate exposure to automation stems from their heavy overrepresentation in the rote, highly automatable jobs associated with food preparation, retail and customer service, among others. Consider that young workers aged 16 to 24 make up slightly more than 9% of the national workforce but represent nearly 40% of cashiers and waitresses and nearly one-quarter of retail salespeople. And consider further that such jobs are now projected to see as much as 80% of their tasks replaced in the coming years by automatic ordering kiosks, swipe-based payment systems, robotic-dishwashing and the like.
That’s not to say all of these jobs will disappear. But it is to say that there may well be fewer of these mainstay jobs in the future and that they will become at once more precarious, more demanding and harder to land. Which underscores the problem here: With young people—especially those from underrepresented groups and poor families—already struggling with the school-to-work transition, as my colleague Martha Ross has documented, the spread of automation in retail, food service and customer-service jobs promises to make things harder. Or to put it another way: Automation and AI are going to increasingly complicate young workers’ search for work and a first connection to gainful employment.
So, how should young workers and others respond? One predictable bit of advice: Young people should go to college—and complete their degree. Doing so gives them a good shot at avoiding heavy reliance on these vulnerable roles.
Beyond that, parents, kids, young workers, high schools and colleges need to bear in mind that the already-difficult school-to-work transition may be getting harder as these entry-level jobs change or disappear. Amid that reality, young people, families, schools and community organizations all need to focus more on higher-quality alternatives to a restaurant or clothing-store job as the first step toward a satisfying work life.
However, this may be easier said than done. On this front, then, my colleague Martha Ross has laid out a solid array of ideas, ranging from “bridge programs” and job training for in-demand occupations to work-based learning opportunities like internships, apprenticeships and special certificates. Likewise, others focus on online “matching” platforms and job-placement programs.
The point, in any event, is that with food-prep and service employment looking less reliable, young workers and those trying to help them should begin to devise new plans for locating sound summer and early-career work.
As E-Commerce Booms, Robots Pick Up Human Slack
The Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in demand for home-delivered goods means FedEx and other shippers are pushing the limits of what robotic arms can do.
Sue, Randall, Colin and Bobby are four of the most reliable workers at the FedEx Express FDX 6.55% World Hub in Memphis, Tenn., according to their supervisors. Each clocks eight hours a day of steady work, sorting around 1,300 packages an hour from bins onto a conveyor—four hours on the day shift and another four at night.
They almost never take breaks, but since they’re still learning on the job, they do regularly call on coworkers in the facility for help. Sue, for instance, has had some trouble with the soft bags in which clothing is typically shipped.
The four workers are actually 260-pound industrial robot arms. Manufactured by Waukegan, Ill.-based Yaskawa America, 6506 -1.66% they are equipped with computer vision and artificial intelligence from San Antonio-based Plus One Robotics.
They work only about half as fast as skilled humans in the same roles, but they are quickly becoming an important part of the chain of machines and people that keep packages flowing through the world’s largest air freight facility, says Aaron Prather, senior advisor of the technology research and planning team at FedEx Express.
While companies such as FedEx Corp., Deutsche Post DHL Group, United Parcel Service Inc. and Amazon. com Inc. have long relied on billions of dollars worth of automation to get packages to customers quickly—from conveyors that divert packages down one path or another to guided vehicles that shuttle about entire shelves of goods—these robot arms are something different.
They’re the first arms of their kind to ever appear in a FedEx facility, and among the earliest examples of the day-to-day use of this technology anywhere in the world.
These robots typify an important and growing trend in automation in general, and robotics in particular. What’s new here is that existing machines are getting both “eyes” and “brains” that allow them to sense and respond. For robots, this generally means the addition of cameras not so different from the ones in cellphones, which perceive visible light.
Computer vision can also include sensors that use other technologies in order to perceive depth. Meanwhile the “brains” of the robot are built with artificial intelligence, generally some form of machine learning, a broad category that enables everything from Alexa’s understanding of our voices to systems that can teach themselves how to beat humans at board games.
This AI gives existing robots and other machines a level of adaptability not before seen. In fact, the new flexibility and intelligence make them able, for the first time, to replace humans in some of the most common jobs in warehousing and logistics.
It’s not as if these robots are about to steal all the jobs in these industries, however. For now, they’re mostly filling vacancies created by surging demand and, where possible, giving humans a chance for promotion. For the foreseeable future, humans will prove more adaptable as work needs change.
Proponents argue that bringing robots into these roles is necessary for at least three reasons.
First, the explosion of e-commerce means an explosion in the volume of packages shipped to homes. About 87 billion parcels were shipped worldwide in 2018—that’s 40 a year to every person in America—and this volume will more than double by 2025, according to Pitney Bowes, best known for its postage meters.
The number has grown much faster than expected during the pandemic. UPS said in the quarter ending in June, the volume of packages shipped from businesses to homes surged by 65% from a year before.
Second, with new and ongoing stay-at-home orders due to increasing Covid-19 cases, the availability of workers even for essential businesses is reduced. Third, the need for social distancing within warehouses and other logistics facilities means automation can play a role in helping workers do their jobs without being directly adjacent to one another.
Despite widespread unemployment, companies in the logistics industry are still finding it hard to hire people fast enough. FedEx’s air hub in Memphis currently has 500 job openings, says Mr. Prather.
Even before the pandemic, warehouses and sorting centers had a labor crunch because many of the jobs in the industry are both physically demanding and dull, leading to high turnover and challenges with recruitment, he adds.
“This has never been about, ‘Can a robot beat a human?’” says Erik Nieves, founder of Plus One Robotics. “This is about how they’re a thousand people short every night in Memphis, and there is no alternative.”
Some of the humans FedEx and others do hire could take on higher-level supervisory roles, with less risk of injury, expanding the burgeoning sector of robot tech support.
FedEx currently has four of these robots at its Memphis facility, but the company estimates one human could tend up to eight of them, jumping in only when they have a problem they can’t solve on their own, like when packages get caught in a conveyor and block a sensor.
Meanwhile, at the Plus One command center in San Antonio, people are on call to help guide the robot remotely when it encounters a package it can’t identify or some other logical difficulty, even before anyone is needed to intervene on site.
The AI that powers these robot arms is learning all the time, but there are always situations that trip it up and require human intervention.
No amount of AI, at least of the sort that exists now, can handle every possible “edge case,” those unexpected situations which are individually rare but quite common when considered all together. This galaxy of edge cases is a major barrier to fully autonomous AI systems.
For any attempts to automate e-commerce, “the challenge is that humans are incredible,” says Bruce Leak, founding partner at venture capital firm Playground Global. “Twenty-five years ago Amazon didn’t exist,” he adds, “and today they have more than a million direct employees.
People are trainable, flexible, resilient and intelligent, and automation and robots aren’t any of those things.” (Amazon currently has 876,000 employees, says a spokeswoman for the company.)
Mr. Leak is an investor in RightHand Robotics, based in Somerville, Mass., which makes a similar AI-powered, camera-equipped picking system. Its technology is used by a handful of companies, including Japan’s Paltac, a wholesaler of consumer packaged goods.
Many other startups have recently received funding or announced deals to sell robotic picking systems, including Covariant, Osaro, Dexterity, Pickle Robot Company, XYZ Robotics, Fizyr, Mujin and Dorabot.
In addition, established systems integrators like Daifuku, Dematic and Honeywell bring together technologies from these startups and established makers of industrial robots, including Yaskawa, Universal Robots, ABB, Kuka, Fanuc and others.
Despite this flurry of activity, the overwhelming majority of industrial robot arms in the world are still the “dumb” kind: They repeat the same action over and over again—for example welding the same parts together repeatedly on an automobile production line. In warehouses where e-commerce orders are filled, most automation consists of various sorting technologies.
Amazon itself has yet to move robot arms into the human job of picking and sorting, publicly at least. While the company is an avid producer and consumer of robots that move shelves and help sort packages, Amazon still uses humans to accomplish the task of taking goods off of shelves or out of bins and putting them into other bins or on conveyors.
The company’s enormous and quickly changing inventory still defeats even the best combination of AI, computer vision and gripper, says Brad Porter, vice president at Amazon Robotics.
“There will always be a need for people to support the automation in our fulfillment centers,” he adds. “We see new technologies increasing safety, speeding up delivery times, and adding efficiencies within our network; we re-invest those efficiency savings in new services for customers that lead to the creation of new jobs.”
While this technology is great for sorting packages, as at FedEx, and dealing with a limited range of items, as at Paltac, it’s possible that the holy grail of picking technology—a robot that can handle the same variety as a human—will remain out of reach for a long time, in the same way we have yet to create an autonomous vehicle that can handle the same variety of road situations a human can.
One reason for the sudden popularity of robots, says Mr. Nieves, is they are a way to do the same job as a human without completely re-engineering the inside of a warehouse.
“These robot arms make a lot of sense,” says FedEx’s Mr. Prather, “because we can’t just tear down the building and say, ‘OK, everyone wait a year until we have a new one.’”
But when one of these big players does build a new facility, using the sort of technology that’s only become available in the past few years, things are different. For example, many of the warehouses where packages are sorted for FedEx’s ground service are newer than its Memphis air hub.
These facilities are so completely automated with, for instance, smart conveyors known as “shoe sorters,” humans only touch packages when they’re brought into these buildings on trucks, and when they exit them on different trucks, says Ted Dengel, managing director of operations technology and innovation at FedEx Ground.
So until and unless every factory and fulfillment center in the world is re-designed to run “dark,” that is, without the involvement of any human labor, these uniquely challenging tasks will benefit from the human brain and body—or at least a reasonable facsimile.
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