Robots…Or Scissors?

The Hyundai plant in Montgomery Alabama consists of a 3.2 million square foot structure sitting on 1700 acres. 395,00 cars are built there every year by 3,000 team members. And hundreds of robots.

A few years ago, I led a consulting project which required me to visit the newly opened plant. The general manager told me he had led the project from the land purchase, through construction and now he was running the entire place. At the time it was the most advanced and automated automobile factory in the world.

When I asked the GM how many people would have worked in the plant 20 or 25 years earlier, he estimated about 15,000.

I thought about my experience at the plant when I saw this headline in the Guardian: “Robots are the ultimate job stealers. Blame them, not immigrants.” The article, by Arlie Hochschild, is, as you’ve guessed, about how robots are in the process of replacing more and more and more people.

I imagine that some of the people who couldn’t find work at the plant are now Uber drivers. Or truck drivers. In a very few years these jobs will also be taken by robots. Robots known as self-driving cars and trucks.

According to the Washington Post, “robots could replace nearly a third of the US workforce by 2030.” They go on to say, “Over the next 13 years, the rising tide of automation will force as many as 70 million workers in the United States to find another way to make money.”

How are we going to keep everyone gainfully employed? Probably through low- paying service jobs where they will be unable to buy the cars Hyundai is making. Or much of anything else.

While preparing to write this missive I came across another article, one I had pulled out of the Wall Street Journal some years ago. It was by Kyle Mills and told the story of his visit to Namibia. I saved the article because it intrigued me and because Namibia is one of my favorite countries.

It seems that when Mills drove into a small town he “spotted a tidy hotel surrounded by a lawn being cut by a man with a pair of scissors.” He continues, “that kind of attention to gardening detail, I decided, deserved—no demanded—my patronage.”

Mills had a nice stay complete with some time spent in the bar talking to the bartender who as usual in these places, wore several hats. He was also the owner of the hotel, a prospector, and a farmer. In addition, he was happy to be the chef for a multi-course dinner if Mills had an idea of what he’d like to eat.

When checking out, Mills remembered the man cutting the grass with scissors and asked the owner why he didn’t buy a lawn mower. With impeccable local logic he responded, “Ninda needed a full-time job. If I gave him a mower, he’d be done in a few hours.”

 

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  1. Michael Kerstetter February 27, 2018 at 11:41 am · · Reply

    This replacement is very real and something that I have been anticipating for a number of years. Over ten years ago, maybe close to fifteen, I was participating in a Tech Showcase internal to my employer at the time. My team was demonstrating some autonomous navigation and decision-making software (operating in some small ground robots) we had been developing with an eye towards defense-related applications. The demonstration was so novel that it made it into the local newspaper. The next morning, an employee from our fabrication lines walked into our demo are, slapped a copy of the newspaper down, and said “That’s my job you’re stealing!” before storming off. At that moment, I was stunned to realize that while our immediate objective was a defense contract, he was right. It wouldn’t take much fiddling with our work at all to adapt it to fabrication line robotics. I never wanted my work to be taking away people’s jobs, but I also realized the genie was out of the bottle and it was too late to put it back in. In just a few years, I started seeing the introduction of robotics into our fab lines and the trend has only increased across all sorts of job functions around the world. I’m fortunate enough to have retired before I was displaced, but I worry about my daughter and the children she might have and what sort of career prospects they’ll have and upheaval they might have to deal with. And I feel a little guilty having been, in my small way, a part of pulling the cork out of the bottle.

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