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The Upsides of Automation for Union Members

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg | May 25, 2020

Automation can be an intimidating word for union members who work in mining, manufacturing and construction — industries that have already invited robots to take over certain tasks in recent years. Some members may worry about the future of their jobs, believing that machines will ultimately replace them and put them out of work.

Automation, however, won't spell the end of your members' careers. Instead, it actually has the potential to add jobs across industries and enhance others as it improves efficiency and productivity in the workplace. As a union leader, you can address union members' fears by educating them about the potential upsides.

Eliminating Repetitive Tasks

Already, automation has gotten a foothold in a variety of industries. In manufacturing, robots are currently welding car parts, while mining companies have rolled out autonomous trucks, trains and drills. In construction, drones help monitor inventory and carry out site inspections. Much of the technology being developed is meant to perform time-consuming, repetitive tasks that many employees won't mind leaving behind.

At the same time, it is true that innovation will inevitably disrupt industries, eliminating certain kinds of jobs. Each new robot in the manufacturing sector has displaced around 1.6 workers since 2004, according to an Oxford Economics report. Over the past two decades, the number of robots in use across the world has multiplied threefold. Trends point to the global stock of robots multiplying even faster in the next 20 years, climbing to as many as 20 million by 2030, the report predicts.

However, that doesn't mean union members will be out of work. Experts call the coming phenomenon "creative destruction," meaning old jobs will be replaced with new ones, many of which we can't yet imagine. It's a trend that's been repeated throughout the course history, as innovation has ended or greatly shrunk numerous professions, including video store owners and elevator operators. Yet, new jobs have replaced the lost ones.

Discovering New Avenues for Work

What will these new jobs looks like? It's impossible to tell for certain, but some signs point in a clear direction: For example, they'll be safer. Workers are likely to benefit from improved workplace safety as technology evolves and machines take over more and more dangerous tasks. That safety goes hand in hand with more meaningful work — when members avoid dull and repetitive tasks, what's left is a greater share of challenging and stimulating responsibilities. These kinds of roles allow members to contribute more of their ideas on the job, to strategize and problem-solve.

To adapt, union members will need to upgrade their skills, learning new technologies and figuring out how to work with cobots, or machines that work alongside people. After upskilling, members may have the expertise to take their trade in unexpected directions or see their careers advance to a new level, which could also come with higher pay. In manufacturing, for example, automating repetitive tasks may allow workers to take on more complex and creative work that requires reimagining manufacturing processes and procedures to make the workplace more efficient. In the mining industry, workers might find roles managing and servicing autonomous machines, while a construction worker could move into a role operating drones.

Preparing for New Roles

Jobs that rise in demand as automation becomes more prevalent might center on running, maintaining or creating those automated tools. These jobs could include robot programmers, machine operators, repair technicians, algorithm designers, predictive equipment analytics specialists and cybersecurity experts.

Union members may need to switch to these new roles, but doing so may require months or years of additional study and technical training. To address the skills gap before these roles need to be filled, some employers partner with secondary schools and community colleges through apprenticeships. Workers whose jobs are especially ripe for automation — those who regularly engage in repetitive tasks at work — should be proactive about reskilling now so that they're ready to navigate shifts in their industry.

As you work to educate your union membership about automation trends, be realistic about addressing members' fears. Recognize that some jobs will be eliminated. However, it's also helpful to highlight the increased safety and potentially life-changing career developments that innovation will bring. The right framing can help turn members' worries into preparation, and maybe even excitement, for the future of work.

 

With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.

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