Mixed news on the “robots will steal our jobs” front


The notion of robots taking away jobs is frightening, especially given the dire predictions that have been made about how automation will replace millions of workers, particularly those in low-skill positions.

Indeed, that already is happening. (When was the last time you received a marketing call from an actual human?) However, a new study from Germany offers some evidence — based on 20 years of labor automation — that robots aren’t causing a net loss of jobs in that European economic powerhouse. But the devil is in the details.

The study by German university researchers concludes that “robots have not been major job killers in Germany so far, somewhat in contrast to the buzz in some of the contemporary public debate,” even though robots are more prevalent in Germany than anywhere else in the world outside Asia.

That being said, the study shows some mixed results. “Although robots do not affect total employment, they do have strongly negative impacts on manufacturing employment in Germany,” the researchers say. “We calculate that one additional robot replaces two manufacturing jobs on average. But, those sizable losses are fully offset by job gains outside manufacturing.”

Well, while there might be a net off-set in terms of total jobs, that doesn’t mean the same people who lost their factory jobs are getting hired for non-manufacturing positions. And how well do those non-manufacturing jobs pay?

On the more optimistic side, the researchers write:

“We find that more robot-exposed workers in fact have a substantially higher probability of keeping a job at their original workplace. That is, robot exposure increased job stability for these workers, although some of them end up performing different tasks in their firm than before the robot exposure.”

That’s more in line with what the “robots won’t take our jobs” side is arguing: Machines will help humans in the workplace, not replace them. Even then, though, it all depends on what type of workers we’re talking about.

“Robot exposure causes notable on-the-job earnings gains for high-skilled workers, especially in scientific and management positions,” the study says. “Those workers may gain from robots, because they possess complementary skills to this technology and perform tasks that are not easily replaceable. But for low-skilled and especially for medium-skilled manufacturing workers, we find sizable negative impacts.”

Bottom line: If you’re an enterprise employee and don’t want to eventually be replaced by a robot, you need to be able to do things that a robot can’t do. The problem is that the list of things robots can’t do will only get smaller. Welcome to the future.


The potential benefit of robots in the workplace

Workforce of the future: Are you planning for robots in your team?

Will automation gut the IT “middle class”?


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