Exploring the Relationship Between Automation & Labor Shortage in Manufacturing – Are Robots Taking Jobs From Food Industry Workers?
This is a common concern that’s often raised in the face of automation, and it has caused a controversy across all kinds of industries. In particular, one industry that’s currently experiencing a lot of automation growth is food manufacturing. Not surprisingly, Martin Riis, Director of Sales & Marketing at Apex Motion Control, has heard these concerns countless times. “At Apex, we focus on creating automation systems for bakery and food manufacturers,” Riis explained. “As a result, we sometimes encounter people who are worried about losing their jobs because of the systems we install. Once in a while, we even get some angry comments on our social media posts.”
However, Riis pointed out that this concern typically fails to consider an important trend about the manufacturing industry: there’s a significant labor shortage that makes it difficult to hire people in the first place. “If you’re in the manufacturing industry, there’s no doubt that you’ve felt the brunt of the labor shortage,” he said. “Jobs involving manual labor usually have extremely high turnover rates. Our customers complain to us all the time about how tough it is to attract and retain workers nowadays. It’s the reason most of our customers want to purchase automation in the first place: they want robots to do the jobs that nobody’s doing!”
As for why this labor shortage is happening in the first place, Riis says that one of the main causes of this labor shortage is the wave of retirement from the Baby Boomer generation. “The Baby Boomer generation composes over a third of the workforce. Once they reach retirement age, they’ll leave a continually growing gap in the manufacturing industry, since there literally aren’t enough younger people to take on these roles.”
The labor shortage isn’t as simple as that though. One trend that makes the situation more complex is that, even with the exodus of Baby Boomers leaving numerous unfilled positions for younger generations, unemployment rates are still continuing to rise.
“There’s a weird paradox happening with the labor shortage right now,” Riis explained. “In theory, if the labor shortage was solely caused by a lack of people from younger generations, all of them would still be able to get jobs and leave a minimal unemployment rate. But that’s not the case. The number of unfilled positions in the manufacturing industry is enormous, and it’s expected to leave as many as 2.4 million unfilled jobs by 2028. Even so, young workers still aren’t taking on any of these jobs!”When looking into the problem deeper, the disconnect appears to be driven by a change in job preferences. “Young people want to work, and manufacturers desperately want to hire people. This seems like it’d be the perfect pairing to kill two birds with one stone! But in reality, the gap between these two groups just keeps growing,” he continued. “The modern view of physical labor has changed. Younger generations want to focus on their education so they can work a white-collar office job, since many of them view manufacturing work as ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty’. It’s not a pleasant thought, but we’ve seen this sentiment a lot, and it’s making the labor shortage even worse.”
With the combination of Baby Boomers who are reaching retirement age and young workers who are avoidant of manual labor, the manufacturing industry has been put into a tough position. Not only that, but because of these changing job preferences, this labor shortage doesn’t seem like it’s going away. As a result, it’s become a rising trend for food manufacturers to invest in automation as a long-term solution to this pressing problem. “Manufacturers have turned to automation for help, and it makes sense. After all, machines can do all kinds of dull and dirty jobs without getting hurt or getting sick,” said Riis. “In the past, automation used to be viewed as a nice-to-have addition to your workspace. But because of the labor shortage, automation has become essential for many businesses to survive. We’ve had manufacturers tell us that they literally cannot find anyone to work on their production lines, and consequently, they need to implement automation to fill that gap. It’s shocking to see how quickly automation has turned into a necessity for these businesses”
When returning to the original question of “are robots taking jobs away from people”, the answer becomes clear with these facts in mind. “In a sense, yes, robots are taking some jobs,” Riis answered. “But they’re taking the jobs that nobody wants to do. They’re not replacing people in these manufacturing plants – they’re filling the gaps that younger workers are consistently avoiding.”
Martin Riis wrapped up this topic by covering some of his past experiences. “I’ve been selling robots at Apex for almost four years, and none of our customers have ever fired an employee after implementing an automation system,” he exclaimed. “The key message here is that automation isn’t something to be feared by workers. Even though it’s easy to view automation as an enemy, the truth is that automation isn’t here to replace people nor kick people out of their jobs. The end-goal of automation is to take over all the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs that people dislike doing. And hopefully, with the continued growth of automation, bakery and food manufacturers will be able to keep up with production demands while ridding themselves of the achilles heel called labor shortage.”