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How robots will reshape the U.S. economy

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Few doubt that our future — both immediate and long term — will be heavily impacted by robots. With flashy AI technology like IBM’s Watson and Google’s driverless cars stealing headlines and outperforming their human competitors, it’s clear that our economy is bracing for a fundamental shift in how we perform work.

What’s less obvious, however, is exactly what the workplace of the future will look like. A pair of Oxford researchers recently estimated that 47 percent of the total U.S. employment is at risk of being eliminated. On the other end of the spectrum, Mercedes announced it is trading out some of its production robots for human labor — the machines could not keep up with the increasing options for customization.

While these two camps continue to argue, in this article we’ll explore three robotic trends that the prevailing media have missed in their coverage of the future of jobs — trends that will hold true if we continue this automation trajectory.

Increased competitiveness

One of the largest obstacles to success facing U.S. businesses today, regardless of size, is controlling labor costs; for many, the cost of labor is second only to the cost of real estate. If a company can maintain consistent labor costs while simultaneously increasing productivity, it will be far more competitive both at home and abroad. Robotic technology makes that possible.

Robots help companies automate the most mundane and repetitive parts of their processes, freeing skilled workers to focus on more business-critical tasks. Indeed, the word “robot” is derived from the Czech term “robota,” meaning forced labor. The vast majority of automation technology will not outright replace humans; instead, it will simply make their work more efficient.

As noted by Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, “If you look at … a combination of man and machine, and you look at some of the examples that have really kind of surprised us in just how they’ve taken off — like Uber, like the Apple store — they are actually cases where humans are made more powerful by this background. And that creates a better customer experience, which creates new demand.”

Industrial mechanization has drastically changed the workforce over the past 200 years; it also has drastically improved the economy.

That new demand will ensure that the more competitive American companies of the future will continue to thrive — even if the world looks different than it does today. In the 1880s, 80 percent of the U.S. labor force worked on farms. Today, it’s two percent. Industrial mechanization has drastically changed the workforce over the past 200 years; it also has drastically improved the economy. The reshaping that will occur as a result of robots entering the labor pool will likely be similar, and those companies that embrace the technology today will be the ones that thrive later.

Reshoring American jobs

As the global supply chain matured, market pressures drove American companies to offshore their work to other countries that offered inexpensive labor. With our minimum wage and high national standard of living, producing goods in places like China, Bangladesh or Indonesia, where protections for workers and the environment are limited, made sense from an economic perspective. And while rising labor costs in these traditionally offshore-friendly areas has a small effect on business decisions, robots in the workplace will likely help reverse this trend.

As automation technology makes U.S. companies more competitive, jobs that were driven overseas by inexpensive labor will return to the American market. “Reshoring,” where U.S. companies pull their resources out of foreign countries and return them to America, will continue to gain traction as robots make our work more efficient.

A recent survey found that more than 50 percent of manufacturing executives were at least considering shifting manufacturing back to the U.S. And some are doing more than just considering: In 2014, 60,000 manufacturing jobs were added to the U.S. versus just 12,000 the year before. Harry Moser, the Reshoring Initiative’s founder and president, noted that the “trend in manufacturing in the U.S. is to source domestically. With 3 [million] to 4 million manufacturing jobs still offshore, we see huge potential for even more growth.”

There is no denying that the modern workplace is evolving.

While the manufacturing industry serves as a strong example of how robotic technology can lead to U.S. job reshoring by decreasing cost and increasing capabilities, it is not the only aspect of businesses that will be affected. Customer support, accounting, tax preparation, web design, computer programming, data entry, R&D and legal services — all of which are commonly outsourced today — will benefit from rapidly advancing automation technology that makes their work far more efficient. Once U.S. companies can execute these functions for less than foreign competitors, the work will return to America.

New (human) employee training

Although the experts cannot agree on exactly how many robots will enter the economy, it’s safe to say that America’s workforce — from the manufacturer’s factory floor to the open office of a law firm — will look very different once the technology is fully integrated. You must do two things to be a truly valuable worker in this environment: embrace technology and be adaptable.

As millennials age into the workplace, the idea of embracing technology is starting to seem a little more passé. Most office workers know how to use email, run a word processor and maybe even set up a three-way call on their Polycom. As robots enter the workplace, though, knowing the intricacies behind the technology that runs them will become an increasingly coveted skill set.

This is not to say that all white-collar workers should enroll in engineering night classes, but knowing how technology works at a base level will make you better at your job — a job that will more and more likely rely on interacting with robots. Employers need to actively promote training programs that empower employees to work more effectively with new tech.

The second trait that future professionals should focus on is adaptability. Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn, shares a story about his visit to the Huawei plant in Shenzhen, China:

I was expecting, as a Silicon Valley technologist, that it would be a complete line of robots…Roughly 60 percent of it was automated and 40 percent of it was still people. You say, ‘Is that just because of low cost?’ No. These are actually high-pay, high-skill jobs. The answer is actually that, in the future, adaptability is key, and people are more adaptable. So when they set up the machine line and it’s all machines, there is a huge amount of retooling to shift from line one to line two, whereas the people are much more easy to shift.”

As robots enter the workforce, most will be extremely proficient at one or two specific tasks. Humans, on the other hand, can be immensely flexible when it comes to how we work. We have a range of both mental and physical abilities that ensure we will remain viable in the labor market — as long as we remain open-minded and adaptable.

The future of work

Whether you believe the impact of automation is overhyped or you’re preparing to welcome our new robot overlords, there is no denying that the modern workplace is evolving. The integration of robotic automation is one of several key trends reshaping the U.S. economy, and it’s important that we have an open discussion about its implications for the future of the workforce.

While some might argue that human labor is jeopardized, it’s more likely that automation will largely benefit U.S. companies and (human) workers as the entire system becomes more efficient and competitive. Or another way to put it, as recently foretold by the great Oracle of Omaha: Now is no time to start betting against America.

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