More evidence of how technology is transforming the workforce; education key to sustainable careers

Workforce automation continues to transform the workforce. Last week we cited a report estimating that 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of “computerization.” In that same post we noted a Pew Research survey of technology experts predicted advances in robotics and computerization would lead to a net displacement of jobs.

This week we see just how disruptive and swift such changes can be.

Apple and Samsung supplier Foxconn has reportedly replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots.

One factory has “reduced employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000 thanks to the introduction of robots”, a government official told the South China Morning Post.

Xu Yulian, head of publicity for the Kunshan region, added: “More companies are likely to follow suit.”

The job loss estimate may be overstated.

In a statement to the BBC, Foxconn Technology Group confirmed that it was automating “many of the manufacturing tasks associated with our operations” but denied that it meant long-term job losses.

“We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees, and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control. [Our emphasis added.]

Also this.

“I was at the National Restaurant Show yesterday and if you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry — it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries — it’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe,” said former McDonald’s (MCD) USA CEO Ed Rensi during an interview…

Rensi’s comments came as McDonald’s workers were planning protests over wages and benefits.

Protesters are planning to escalate their annual demonstrations ahead of [McDonald’s Corp. annual] meeting [May 25], according to organizers that are funded by the Service Employees International Union. Hundreds of McDonald’s cooks and cashiers are expected to set up tents outside of the company’s U.S. headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., and stay there overnight Wednesday. In all, as many as 10,000 fast-food, home-care and child care workers from across the U.S. will be protesting the meeting, the organizers say. 

In our foundation report, we noted the increasing importance of postsecondary training, the training and education that develops the skills required to make the “higher value-added” contributions required as the “repetitive tasks” are consigned to robots.

But it is not simply a matter of more education; the education provided must prepare students for the jobs being created within the economy. Critically, the education provided must be in fields that match the skills necessary for success in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace. Too often it does not.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) examined the skills gap in Washington state in 2013. BCG found “approximately 25,000 ‘acute’ unfilled jobs in Washington as a result of the skills gap. Approximately 80 percent of those openings are in highly skilled STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines…”

We hope to have more current information on the skills gap in the coming months. But the trend is clear and the implications inescapable. Sustainable careers will be built on advanced training and education and on judgment and innovation–qualities not easily automated.