LIMA — A heavy concentration of production, material-moving and transportation jobs exposes the Lima region to the potential for labor force disruption driven by automation. Can Lima stay ahead?
While the relationship between automation and job loss is not exact, the risk for technologically driven disruption in this region is high: About 32% of jobs in the region contain a high share of automatable tasks, according to a 2019 analysis from the Brookings Institution.
The problem is even more acute in Mercer County, where nearly 40% of jobs analyzed by Brookings researchers are exposed to automation.
“The way that automation works is it does not replace jobs, it replaces distinct tasks that workers do,” said Robert Maxim, a senior research analyst with the Brookings Institute, who co-authored the report. “Those tasks can be done in multiple different jobs.”
So while a mechanical arm does not replace a factory worker, Maxim explained, the technology does eliminate one task that workers previously had been responsible for. The more tasks eliminated, the fewer workers needed.
The study classified jobs as high risk when more than 70% of daily tasks are automatable.
That includes fast-food workers and waiters — two of the most common “high risk” occupations in the region— who are already seeing their work change through the introduction of ordering kiosks and new restaurant technologies.
But the greatest challenge for the region will be the potential disruption in manufacturing and transportation.
The region employs more than 2,000 heavy truck drivers and 1,500 machinists, occupations paying a median wage of nearly $20 per hour and which are heavily comprised of automatable tasks, according to the Brookings report.
The best way to mitigate losses, Maxim said, is for local economies to diversify.
The solution is more complicated for individuals whose skills are rendered obsolete.
Educators are already adopting robotics and automated technologies in their vocational classrooms to prepare students for an evolving workforce. The timeline that new technologies are introduced locally, however, can be hard to predict.
“It’s not that there aren’t going to be any jobs,” said Ben Frail, division head of robotics and automation at the University of Northwestern Ohio. “They will be different. It’s a big misconception that the jobs replaced by automation are just gone — you need people to install the equipment, maintain the equipment, program the equipment and repair the equipment.”
For every job eliminated by robotics or automation, Frail said four new positions are created.
“As long as someone is willing to be retrained with the new technology,” Frail said, “there are countless new job opportunities for them.”
Maxim agreed that workers will need to remain versatile as their workplaces change. Continuing education — including vocational credentials — will become even more important.
“Workers will need to develop a set of skills for the work that is available in the local labor market in the short run,” Maxim said, “and then they’re also going to (need) an ancillary set of skills that will allow them to adapt and may find new work if their current job changes significantly or is even eliminated.”
Should employers pay? Sen. Sherrod Brown is pushing that idea as he recently introduced legislation that would require companies to give notice to employees and provide on-the-job training when jobs will be changed or eliminated by new technologies, which Brown compared to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notices requiring companies to give notice of mass layoffs.
“The concern is when you start seeing more robots show up, you start seeing more machines that take less and less people to operate – that’s when we start losing jobs,” said Michael Copeland, president of the United Auto Workers 1219 in Lima. “Our concern is that we have more control over the timeline. If we get the information (early), we can prepare when those changes are going to happen.”
“We’re directly affected by changes,” he said. “All we want to be able to control our destiny a little bit more.”
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.