L.A. Times: Are More Work Robots a Bad Thing?
After Gov. Jerry Brown announced a proposal this week to ratchet up the state’s minimum wage 50% by 2022, business groups warned that the rapid increase could actually hurt the people Brown was trying to help. In addition to laying off workers and moving jobs out of state, they predicted, companies would move more aggressively to automate, replacing at least some of the people on their payroll with machines. That’s not an idle threat, especially for low-skilled labor; the number of tasks that computerized devices can perform at least as well as humans grows every year. But automation isn’t necessarily bad for workers — just look at what’s happening in the U.S. garment industry.
Competition from Bangladesh, Vietnam and other low-wage countries has been devastating to U.S. apparel jobs, as many domestic manufacturers have moved their factories overseas to slash their labor costs. Total U.S. employment dropped more than 80% over the last two and a half decades, plummeting from just under 1 million garment workers in 1990 to about 135,000 in February.
One consequence is that there are far fewer Americans capable of filling the available jobs than there used to be. And with sewing-machine operators making just $10.50 an hour on average, other fields are proving more attractive to young workers. The labor shortage has opened the door for companies such as SoftWear Automation, which makes what amounts to a robot brain that enables an industrial sewing machine to stitch complex seams automatically. Chief Executive K.P. Reddy says his customers are using the technology not to replace people with machines, but to increase the productivity of a shrinking pool of skilled workers and eliminate the bottlenecks created by difficult stitching tasks. That can help increase workers’ output — and their value.
Read the full article at The Los Angeles Times.