Behind the Headlines
Are workers actually welcoming robots?
Week of December 10, 2018
Robots may be coming for our jobs, wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims in a recent technology column. While pointing out that automation should eventually create new jobs and that companies must adopt robots to remain efficient and compete, Mims concedes that a large number of workers are likely to suffer in the short term, referring to an Oxford University study estimating that 47% of US jobs “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.
Robotic reality may be painting a different picture. A severe shortage of skilled workers and the advantage of having robots do backbreaking, boring tasks that free employees to do higher-level, higher-paid work, are the key drivers of robot adoption, says Jerome Dubois, CEO and founder of 6River Systems in Waltham, Mass., which manufactures robotic systems used in warehouses.
“Warehouses employ 600,000 to 700,000 people full-time and another 30% to 40% in the fourth quarter,” he said. “But there just aren’t enough skilled people to fill the roles. The only way to bridge that gap is to make current people more productive by making their jobs easier to do so that people with less skill can learn them.”
Dubois, whose firm was named one of the ten hottest robotic startups of 2018 by CRN, suggests that companies getting heat for adding robotics should simply state the facts.
“Technology is never going to be as sophisticated as humans, but it can make a human’s job easier and eliminate its non-value-added time,” he said. “For jobs in warehouses, that’s walk time, or the time it takes to find things. Robots can do that faster and easier, but it’s hard to get a robot to reach in and grab the right thing; humans do that from the time they are toddlers.”
“What robots are doing is providing a better quality of work environment. At Home Depot, workers were pushing around 1,000-pound carts eight hours a day. Now, a robot is doing that.”