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9/5/2017 10:56:00 AM
Automation proves to be mixed blessing for today's workers

Rebecca R. Bibbs, Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON – Automation in the workplace is a blessing for managers and curse for rank-and-file employees, say people working in a variety of fields.

Michael Haney, who has worked in water treatment for about 20 years in Winchester, said he’s seen the number of employees at his plant dwindle from four to just him because of efficiencies achieved through automation.

“There’s been a lot of changes as far as that sort of thing goes. The pumps are automated more. They’re doing it with less people,” he said.

He was one of many people looking for recreation over the Labor Day weekend at Hoosier Park Racing & Casino, one of Madison County’s largest employers.

McKinsey Global Institute in its report released earlier this year, "A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity," estimated about 49 percent of workplace activities can be done by machines or robots aided by artificial intelligence software. Among the more than 70 disciplines that could be affected, according to the report, are mail clerks, tire repairers and ophthalmic lab technicians.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey released last year predicts about 58 percent of CEOs would downsize their workforces because of robotics, but another 18 percent would hire more people for the same reason.

Laquita Haley, who has been a manager for 15 years at a fast food restaurant in Marion, said her company is preparing to install kiosks where customers can get coffee without ever interacting with a person. Still, she said, she believes her job isn’t in danger, though she worries about those of lower-level employees.

“The only thing I don’t see them replacing is our kitchen workers,” she said.

Leah Mills, who has worked nine years in a warehouse and four months in a cafeteria, said she doesn’t believe either job is in danger due to automation.

“I’ve always worked. I’ve never had trouble finding a job,” she said.

But Molly Fields, who has worked for eight years in corporate operations for the Marion branch of a national company, said her company is both a producer and consumer of automation technologies.

“Since we are a telecommunications company, we are on the cutting edge of technology,” she said. “Our inventory goes obsolete in about six months.”

Even so, Fields said, the jobs won’t be going anywhere soon.

“Someone still has to work the automation. Someone still has to set the software to go,” she said.

In a fast-paced world, however, the turnover can be high if workers are unable to keep up with the training, Fields said.

“The No. 1 reason people get laid off in my company is stagnation … If you aren’t learning outside your current position, you won’t be there long.”

Universal basic income

As automation makes an increasing number of jobs obsolete and puts workers on the unemployment line, the number of economists advocating universal basic income is growing. A concept supported by technology leaders including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, UBI would guarantee every citizen – rich or poor – would receive a monthly income from the government.

The intent is to ensure that everyone has a basic amount on which to live, eliminating the need for unemployment insurance, welfare or food stamps. For those who prefer to live more than a basic life, there still would be opportunities for employment or to follow their creative and business dreams without worry.

A research study released this week by the Roosevelt Institute said a guaranteed UBI of $1,000 per month would encourage the U.S. economy to grow by nearly 12.6 percent over eight years.

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