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How robots will really take our jobs

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A March report from the research arm of PwC found that 38 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next 15 years. Right now, many companies like Amazon and Ford are choosing to use robots to supplement human work, rather than staff their entire warehouse with them. But even the presence of a robot can leave workers feeling like they should be looking for another job.

The Washington Post reported today that factory workers are leaving their jobs at the highest rate in a decade. Many former factory workers interviewed by the Post cited the long hours, grueling physical work, and shrinking safety net as their reasons for leaving the industry — as well as the fear of their jobs being replaced by robots.

The story serves as a good case study for how anxiety about the rise of automation is causing some factory and warehouse workers to think twice about staying in the industry — even if factories aren’t being completely run by robots yet.


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Kipp Glenn, a former employee with Carrier Corp. in Indiana, told the Post that he felt compelled to accept a buyout after the first robot appeared on the Carrier floor.

Glenn said he noticed robots creeping into the plant about 18 months ago. A blue-and-gray machine bumped him to another spot in the factory, he said, which pushed a younger employee into a lower-paid role. (Carrier did not comment on the factory’s technological changes.)

For Brenda Battle, a former Carrier employee who accepted a buyout in July, working with a robot made her job less enjoyable.

She said she got lonely after a robot arrived, making her two-person job a one-person job. She disliked the absence of friendly chatter and named the machine after a five-letter expletive.

“That thing was scary,” she said.

Not all workers may feel glum working alongside robots. A 2014 study from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) found that human workers were happier working with robots if they let robots take the lead on allocating what tasks workers should perform. Additionally, MIT’s CSAIL Lab found that humans and robots work together more effectively if they cross-train — meaning they swap roles every once in a while.

Still, companies need to be proactive about addressing workers’ concerns about working alongside robots. It’s a particularly important step for Heartland factories to take. As a report from the Brookings Institution released on Tuesday found, it’s companies in the Midwest and upper South that are using the most industrial robots.

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