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The labor debate: Is autonomy in a position of job elimination or job enhancement?

During an autonomy panel presentation at Trimble’s 2022 Dimensions+ conference in Las Vegas, Oxbotica Founder & CTO Paul Newman provided his take on how industrial jobs like machine operators will change with the advent of autonomous machinery. 

Newman's analogy put the topic into historical perspective:

"When computers were coming out in the ‘60s, [people worried that] all jobs were going to go. Now, how many people have jobs because of computers? … Of course autonomous technology is going to generate bajillions of jobs — of course it will! That’s what technology does, it lifts us…It’s a catalyst to create new jobs.”

The topic of how jobs will change, and ultimately adapt, has been a topic of debate since the early days of autonomous development. Is autonomy poised to destroy jobs, or revolutionize them? Do today’s industries have a choice but to embrace machine learning and other technologies as they face crippling shortages in skilled labor?

We asked Trimble Autonomy’s Strategic Marketing Manager Kevin Andrews and Trimble Engineering Director Ian Welch to weigh in on some labor-centric questions surrounding autonomy. Here is what they said:

Is the advent of autonomous solutions going to be something new, or is this something industries have faced and adjusted to before?

KA: When computers arrived, typists were going to be out of work. When the steam engine came, laborers were going to be out of work. There’s been a lot of historical precedence in relation to jobs. While autonomy could be disruptive to people sitting on machines today in industries like agriculture or construction, automation has always historically opened up new opportunities. New ways for people to provide higher value. In the future, we see it creating opportunities we’re not even aware of yet. Some of today’s hottest jobs didn’t exist 5-10 years ago, and I think that’s going to be true in another 5-10 years.

What benefits lie ahead for industries as they adjust to autonomous capabilities?

IW: The repeatability and guaranteed output automated machines provide isn’t something humans are good at. Humans vary in their approach, which makes the end result far less predictable. Also, machines don’t need breaks. From the first minute of the day to the last, an autonomous machine just keeps working — no shift changes necessary — with the same level of measurable quality. Even through the night. An autonomous machine isn’t going to lose count of how many passes they’ve made or do additional unnecessary passes to appear busy. A machine does exactly what a machine tech tells it to do. Click here to watch Ian speak on this topic in our latest construction video.

What is the most productive mindset industry leaders can have on the changing landscape of jobs as machine learning and other autonomous technologies become more prevalent? 

KA: It’s critical to accept that the labor shortage is real, so to address growing future populations with a continued dwindling supply of labor, we’ll need automation in order to keep up with efficiency and productivity demands. Autonomy means that we will require fewer people to perform those mundane, repeatable tasks that are no longer profitable or even achievable.

What lies ahead for today’s experienced machine operators?

KA: If you’re operating a machine now, you’re going to be in huge demand as autonomous operation becomes more and more commonplace. Experienced operators are poised to take their expertise to the next level in autonomous machines, and learning the precision tools needed to drive those new machines is where they ought to focus their efforts. And the truth is, this technology isn’t difficult to learn.

How close are we to not needing operators in machines at all?

KA: We’re not there yet. For now, it’s more a matter of shifting responsibilities. Autonomy is making it easier for inexperienced operators to drive at a skilled level, which will lessen the challenge for industries to find people to sit in the driver’s seat — even if they’re not actually driving. The jobs “hit” won’t be as big as people are expecting, because overall demand for services is going to grow. That growing demand is going to be met first by partial autonomy, and it will be less about getting people out of the cab and more about meeting new requirements with some new tools.

What caused this whole “labor” shortage that autonomy is responding to today?

KA: The demographics are changing across the globe for these industries. Younger generations are getting smaller due to birth rates slowing, but the food demand is still high, as is the need to build. The aging population can’t be expected to fill that growing need. Covid fueled an already evolving jobs landscape, and many automated technologies were rolled out that have advanced autonomous adoption rates. It’s time for industries to start preparing for that dwindling workforce now, and for today’s operators to embrace a higher-tech approach to working with machines.

What else is behind the labor shortage industries are facing?

IW: It’s getting harder and harder for industries to find skilled laborers in part because few people want those jobs anymore. This newer generation is one of video games and high-tech. Think of how we do our jobs today — it’s not pen and paper anymore. It’s digital. This coupled with a demand for improved productivity calls for a different skill set. We can take that job and automate it into something the incoming generation will want. From the efficiency standpoint, a job that used to take one site supervisor and four operators can be done by one supervisor and one technician. It’s not like you just get rid of four people, it just becomes fewer jobs, which are likely to pay better.