Robotic disruption of the American workforce opens up new opportunities and challenges

The American workforce has faced many disruptions in recent years. From mass layoffs to the work-from-home revolution and now labor shortages, the employment landscape keeps changing. Amidst all these changes, more and more companies have started to adopt robotics.

North American industrial companies ordered a record 29,000 robots in the first nine months of 2021. This represents a 37% increase over 2020, and given the steady increase in adoption of automation over the years, this trend is unlikely to slow down. As businesses across industries continue to struggle with labor shortages, robots offer an ideal solution.

The workforce is becoming increasingly robotic, and this change is happening faster than many anticipated. Here is an overview of the resulting opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities with Robotic Disruption

Naturally, the use of robots has significant advantages. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be as many companies investing in it as much. That said, this technology is still relatively new and misconceptions about it abound. While every business may have its own motivation for automation, here are the most important benefits of robotic disruption.

Increased productivity

The main advantage of robots is their efficiency. Repetitive and data-intensive tasks often pose a challenge to humans who get tired and bored. Robots do not face these obstacles and can complete certain tasks up to 500% faster than human workers. This efficiency is hard to overlook.

The speed and repeatability of robots are also not the only factors that improve productivity. Since they automate tasks that humans used to do before, they free up employees to focus on other workflows. Firms can then accomplish more work in less time with the same number of workers.

These productivity gains became increasingly valuable as companies faced labor shortages amid the Great Resignation. On average, more than 3.98 million workers quit their jobs every month in 2021. With the workforce shrinking, companies needed ways to maximize productivity and robots provided the answer.

Improved security

Robotic automation is also making many workplaces safer. Industrial workplaces are often filled with hazards. Working on a car, for example, can include exposure to toxic chemicals, extreme heat, sharp edges, and the risk of being crushed under the vehicle. The surest way to deal with these dangers is to eliminate them completely.

Assigning robots to the most dangerous jobs helps maintain a safe distance between human workers and hazards. While measures such as training and personal protective equipment (PPE) help mitigate these risks, automation solves the fundamental problem. Hazardous processes are technically not hazardous if there is no one nearby to harm themselves.

These safety improvements do more than protect the health and well-being of employees. They also save businesses time and money. Fewer accidents mean less lost productivity and time, and businesses won’t lose as much in workers’ compensation and related expenses.

Mitigation of human behavior problems

Incorporating robotics into the workforce can also help overcome issues related to human behavior. The most striking example of this is how they reduce errors, an almost unavoidable human characteristic. Even the best-trained employee can make mistakes, especially if they’re tired, bored, or distracted, but bots deliver consistent results with high repeatability.

The robots also don’t face any behavioral issues that could cause conflict in the workplace. Substance use disorders can cost between $2,600 and $13,000 per employee, and their presence is often beyond companies’ control. It is impossible for a robot to work while intoxicated, so these machines mitigate this vulnerability.

Robotic workers also won’t have relationship conflicts with human colleagues, which often hinders productivity in traditional workplaces. Using robots to maintain a healthy distance between certain employees can help reduce the impact of existing conflict in the workplace.

Disadvantages of Robotic Workforce

The benefits of robotic disruption in the workforce are hard to ignore. As the shortcomings of conventional workplaces have become clearer to businesses, more have realized these benefits. However, robots also have unique drawbacks.

The disadvantages of robots do not necessarily disqualify their advantages, but they do demand attention. Companies considering implementing robots or scaling up their robotics efforts need to think about the downsides of these technologies to make the best decisions. The most effective and fair robotics initiatives balance opportunities with challenges.

Disruption of wages and employment

The most significant challenge of an increasingly robotized workforce is the resulting disruption to jobs and wages. Recent studies reveal that the oldest fear about automation is coming true: people are losing their jobs to robots. For every robot added per 1,000 workers, employment-to-population ratios decrease by 0.2%, which may not seem like much, but has resulted in the loss of 400,000 jobs so far.

Average wages fall even faster than employment in areas that adopt more robots. Wages fall by 0.77% for each robot added per 1,000 workers. This drop in wages could be the result of employers viewing human workers as less valuable than robots. Even if this sentiment is not accurate, the results have real impacts on real people.

Despite these short-term losses, studies also show that robots have a positive impact on employment over time. As automation takes some jobs, it creates new job opportunities elsewhere. Some experts predict that by 2025, robots will create 97 million new jobs while displacing 85 million.

Of course, that still means 85 million people could lose their jobs in the short term. New careers that open up are often in different places and require different skills, so considering it an exact one-to-one ratio isn’t entirely accurate. If employers want to minimize job displacement, they need to focus on upskilling and retraining workers who might lose their jobs to robots.

Excessive application

Companies also risk over-applying bots beyond their capabilities. Although the capabilities of robots exceed those of humans in repetitive and data-intensive tasks, they are not a perfect replacement for human workers. Humans are much more adept at any job that requires nuance or adaptability.

The best way to implement bots is to help employees do their jobs, not replace them. Seeing these machines as better alternatives for workers will lead to more risks than rewards, hurting both jobs and business finances. As robots become more popular and affordable, companies need to make sure they don’t think they are more capable than they are.

Robots will change the workforce for good

Robots have already changed the face of the workforce in many areas. This trend will grow and spread, and if companies keep the relevant challenges in mind, it can be beneficial in the long run.

Like any new technology, robots have impressive benefits and equally great risk potential. Companies must recognize and address these drawbacks to ensure that robotic disruption of the workforce is positive and not harmful.

Michael A. Bynum