No, robots won't put us all on the unemployment line
by BETSY MCCAUGHEY, PHD
April 12, 2017
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is taking flak for saying he's "not worried at all" about robots displacing American workers. Yet he's spot on: Robots will soon spark a productivity boom, leading to improved economic growth, higher wages and a higher standard of living. Just what America needs after a decade dragging along at 2 percent growth.
Scaremongers who warn that robots steal jobs are failing to envision the jobs of the future. A hotel worker who makes room-service deliveries today may instead be monitoring or repairing a fleet of delivery robots. Not to mention the new jobs in every sector that will come with a surging economy, predict PricewaterhouseCoopers consultants. Robots are our friends.
And there's no going back, contrary to the claims of Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. The tech billionaire wants to put the brakes on the next innovation boom. He's proposing a hefty tax to penalize robots in the workplace. Sheer foolishness.
History is replete with examples of technophobes who tried in vain to stop progress. Two centuries ago, Luddites smashed machinery in British textile factories to protest industrialization.
A century ago trucks, tractors and cars put horses out to pasture and brought droves of people off the farm - sparking America's rise to economic dominance. And just 40 years ago, computers launched the tech boom. Now we're on the brink of the robot revolution.
Not a minute too soon. Economists have been griping about the stagnant world economy, claiming what's needed is a technological breakthrough. Well, here it is - assuming politicians don't try to kill it.
Robotics has already taken hold in manufacturing, especially the auto industry, where a single machine can be programmed to weld and paint, then package and assemble, all without an operator. These machines are so efficient that US factories are producing more with fewer workers on the assembly line. That gain in productivity translates into higher wages for the remaining factory workers and lower prices for consumers.
That's not lost on automakers in Japan, South Korea, Germany, and China: They're also heavily investing in robots.
If President Trump succeeds in bringing auto jobs back to the United States, they won't be the same routine, repetitive tasks assembly line workers had in the past. These new jobs will require knowledge of computer-aided design, hydraulics, and other complex engineering issues.
The same goes for the service sector, like retail, hotels and restaurants, and warehousing. A staggering 94 percent of CEOs using robots say they've increased productivity. The end result: fewer jobs for unskilled workers, though in all likelihood more jobs overall as the economy grows, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The new jobs will likely pay more but demand more skills. So it's urgent for workers and young people to get the skills needed for tomorrow's work environment.
Left-wingers like Bernie Sanders are calling for "free" college at taxpayers' expense, and Gov. Cuomo just delivered a version of it. But college is no cure-all, especially not if you major in film and gender studies and shun courses that would give you work skills.
Message to politicians: Focus on workplace readiness. It beats trying to block technological progress - a vain attempt to protect yesterday's jobs. Instead of signing the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, should President Lincoln have opposed the Transcontinental Railroad to protect the jobs of stage coach drivers?
When banks introduced ATMs, tellers panicked. But ATMs increased profits, banks expanded and actually hired more tellers (2 percent more a year since 2000) to do more complex tasks, as Gabriel Horwitz of the centrist Third Way think tank explains.
The economy thrives when businesses, not politicians, call the shots on technology. Embracing robots will create more goods and services, a bigger pie for all to share. Skills training will help everyone get a piece of the pie.