Robotics, artificial intelligence and automation hold the unique promise of resolving the shortage of skilled workers that threatens the economic future of Massachusetts, AIM President and Chief Executive Officer Richard C. Lord said this morning.
Delivering the fourth annual State of Massachusetts Business address before 300 senior business executives, Lord acknowledged that automation suffers from a grim image problem in the larger society where people fear that robots will take their jobs. But he said Massachusetts employers starved for qualified employees are using robots in collaboration with people to extend the reach of their work forces.
“In a state where employers created 70,000 jobs last year and unemployment stands at 3.6 percent, the structural shortage of skilled workers stands as the primary impediment to sustained economic growth,” Lord told the 2018 AIM Economic Outlook Forum.
“Massachusetts companies across industries ranging from software to manufacturing to hospitality have postponed expansions, declined to bid for contracts or outsourced work because they simply can’t find people with the training needed to compete in a complex world. The only way out of this economic dead end for Massachusetts is to rely upon productivity improvements fueled by intelligent technology to extend the reach of the talented people we employ.”
Lord highlighted the example of Barrett Distribution of Franklin, which is using robots to improve productivity and reduce the amount of time its 500 employees spend moving throughout large warehouses to provide orders for retailers and e-commerce customers. Established as a single warehouse in 1941, Barrett now operates more than 2.1 million square feet of state-of-the-art warehouse space across the country.
“The industry is changing very fast, the robots will get smaller, more adaptive, (and) a little bit cheaper, so I think you’ll see the adoption rate go up very high across the industry. And certainly for us, we’re going to be on the leading edge of this technology,” Scott Hothem, Senior Vice President of Customer Solutions at Barrett, said in a video shown the audience.
Lord said the good news is that Massachusetts is a global center of robotics, AI and automation. Driven by academic research institutions like MIT, Harvard, UMass and BU, Massachusetts occupies a unique position as the crucible of intelligent industries ranging from driverless vehicles to Patriot missiles to Roomba vacuum cleaners.
It’s also worth noting, according to Lord, that there is plenty of room for improvement on the productivity front. The United States posted an historically low annual labor productivity growth rate of 1.1 percent between the great Recession and 2016. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that automation could raise productivity growth globally by 0.8 to 1.4 percent each year.
A panel of experts largely agreed with the idea that automation will enhance, rather than replace, most human labor.
David Askey, founder of Ascend Robotics in Cambridge, said the manufacturing companies that use his technology have realized productivity increases approaching 40 percent that have also raised the compensation and value of workers.
“Most of our calls come from customers who are not able to find enough skilled workers or want to expand,” Askey said.
Martha Sullivan, President and CEO of Sensata Technologies of Attleboro, said that while the technology for mass use of autonomous vehicles remains several years away, it is a technology that could change the entire business model of the auto industry from one that sells vehicles to consumers to one that helps companies manage fleets.
“Will you have private ownership anymore? Will you need private automobile insurance? … It becomes an asset- management question,” she said.
Lord said employers acknowledge the need to engage in debate about the hard issues raised by the technological revolution: Does automation ultimately create or cost jobs? Do Amazon and similarly disruptive companies ultimately help or harm the economy? And are technology driven productivity increases to blame for the slow rate of wage growth eight years into an economic recovery?
“But the ultimate truth is this – technology and innovation are here to stay; they do not regress, they do not go away and they do not waiver from the relentless pursuit of removing inefficiencies from the business economy.,” Lord said.
“If large numbers of workers are not going to walk through the doors of our companies to write code or make jet engine parts, employers will have to find ways to do more with less.”