How Automation Affects Labor

There’s been plenty of speculation about how increasing automation might affect American workers. Some say that half of all jobs could be lost to robots in the next decade. Others see industry-specific job losses affecting accountants and construction workers, not all workers.

Manufacturing workers are right up there with accountants and models, though, in the pool of workers who are likely to lose their jobs, according to futuristic predictions.

New data from Germany may give us more reliable ways to predict the results of increasing automation on the human workforce, though.

In Germany, there are 7.6 robots for every thousand human workers. In the U.S., there are just 1.6 per thousand people, so Germany could be a very good model for what American workers are likely to see if automation in manufacturing increases significantly.

The good news: researchers found that there was essentially no effect on German employment. In terms of numbers of people employed, the effect of robots has been “close to zero.”

That doesn’t mean that there have been no effects at all. Researchers found that a greater inequality in wages was one of the effects. People with limited skills earned less in manufacturing and were more likely to end up working in the service sector instead of in manufacturing. On the other hand, those with more skills and training earned more.

In the U.S., manufacturers have more trouble finding workers than in Germany, where 25% of young people leaving school have traditionally gone into manufacturing. Automation upswings in the U.S. have in some cases been in response to the difficulty of finding qualified human workers.

If the pattern of increasing automation in the U.S. follows the pattern seen in Germany, though, American workers may look forward to more opportunities — as long as they’re willing to take on more training.

Right now, keeping machines working is more of an issue for most of our clients than machines’ effects on workers.

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