A national report has found that Kokomo is the second-most susceptible metro area in the U.S. to potential automation, with more than a third of the city’s jobs considered to be at high automation risk.

But while those statistics, published last month by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization, tell an alarming story at first glance, researchers say the truth is more nuanced, with automation bringing “neither apocalypse nor utopia” and “the near future resembling the near past.”

Local experts, well-versed in the concerns and promises of automation, have encouraged workers to embrace education and training as a buffer to what will likely be the elimination of routine, replaceable jobs.

And they urge community leaders to continue their efforts toward economic diversification and away from a still-heavy reliance on the manufacturing industry.

The report, titled "Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Are Affecting People and Places," utilized government and private data to find that “automation and [artificial intelligence] will affect tasks in virtually all occupational groups in the future,” noting that “the effects will be of varied intensity and drastic for only some.”

Kokomo, researchers found, has an average automation potential of 54.7 percent. The report listed 28.8 percent of local jobs at low automation risk, followed by 33 percent at medium risk and 38.2 percent at high risk.

That average automation potential was the second highest for metropolitan areas in the nation, behind Dalton, Georgia, and in front of Elkhart-Goshen, Indiana, which relies heavily on the RV industry.

Both Kokomo and Elkhart saw the lowest of the lows during the Great Recession, and have flown high during the nation’s recovery. A 2018 study done by Bloomberg found that Kokomo had made the third most dramatic economic improvement since 2009.

Ranked No. 1 was the Elkhart-Goshen metro area, which was greatly impacted by the RV industry’s strong bounce-back.

But big questions remain.

“The next phase of automation, increasingly involving AI, seems like it should be manageable in the aggregate labor market, though there are many sources of uncertainty,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow and lead author of the report.

“With that said, the potential effects will vary significantly across occupations, regions, and demographic groups, which means that policymakers, industry, and society as a whole needs to focus much more than they are on ensuring the coming transitions will work for all of those affected.”

It’s important to note that Kokomo’s place near the top of the Brookings report does not mean half of the city’s jobs will soon start dropping like flies – although the types of tasks completed by workers could shift dramatically.

Researchers say that while automation will affect how humans work – thus the susceptibility to automation – it will “likely continue to have a muted net impact on total employment.”

While routine, predictable jobs are becoming increasingly vulnerable to job-loss through automation, there is a lot humans can do that robots cannot. This means that jobs classified as non-routine requiring creative and social intelligence are likely safe from robots in the near future.

The report notes that while 25 percent of U.S. employment will have high exposure to automation, and could be “seriously disrupted,” just half-a-percent of the U.S. workforce exist in jobs that are 100 percent automatable.

“In short, work is going to be quite durable even though very few roles will see no task change as much work is going to evolve – likely at faster rates of change than in the past,” it notes.

In other words, jobs will change. But humans will still be needed.

It’s important, said Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance President and CEO Charlie Sparks, to learn new skills, especially in a town so dependent on manufacturing, production and agriculture.

“Just in manufacturing in general, a lot of assembly-type positions have been replaced by automation, but the advanced skilled positions have not and will not be replaced by automation,” he said.

“I think it is maybe an inducement to improve skill level. As a member of the workforce, if I’m engaged in kind of a routine, talk-oriented job, I might look to receive some kind of certification or further education with a diploma to protect myself from being as at risk to automation.”

Sparks, who said automation is necessary for companies to stay competitive, compared its impact to offshoring.

“I think this in a way, the continuing growth of automation, is very similar to what we’ve gone through, from an employment perspective, to what we went through with offshoring,” he said.

“It’s the routine tasks that in the past went offshore, and now for those that still exist, some will be replaced by automation.”

And there is a trade-off, one that will help retain jobs.

“Because although it helps with efficiencies and productivity it does diminish flexibility in operating a facility,” said Sparks. “If you have a sudden need to put half a dozen employees on a certain tasks, that’s much easier to do with people than it is with machines.”

A statement from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles made a similar point.

“Automation has been part of the manufacturing operations at FCA for decades. Robots and humans work side-by-side every day at our plants, each playing an important role in producing some of the world’s most award-winning vehicles,” it read.

“Robots are often better-suited for jobs that require exacting precision or could compromise the safety of the operator. On the other side, humans are equally as important in providing specialized skills that robots lack, like problem-solving, critical thinking or complex dexterity.”

The company went on to say it is “constantly evaluating how the implementation of automation and technology might improve our processes, but it would be premature to speculate on how that might impact future employment in our plants.”

Rachel Blakeman, the Purdue University Fort Wayne Community Research Institute director, encouraged workers to become more highly-skilled through available training, certificates, degrees or something similar.

“Automation done well isn’t necessarily going to replace people, it is going to replace tasks,” she said, noting that new jobs could emerge as people become increasingly needed to work on the technology that is utilized for automation.

“Now, if you’re position in an auto plant or at another manufacturer could be done by a robot you are at risk. If you have gotten skilled … that’s going to make you much less vulnerable. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where there are no humans in the factory. It’s just a question of what are the people doing while they are there?”

In conjunction, an FCA spokeswoman pointed to available training like an MBA through IU Kokomo or an executive MBA through Purdue University; advanced manufacturing degrees offered by Ivy Tech and taught at FCA facilities; and collaborations with Purdue grad students as available options.

“Let’s say you’re 28 years old, you graduated from Kokomo High School 10 years ago and you decided to go work at the factory when you were 19. Your job prospects for the long haul are at risk,” said Blakeman, pointing to jobs that robots do like placing windshields onto cars.

“If you have decided, you know what, you started working at the factory and then you became skilled as a technician to work on the equipment … then you’re creating some new opportunities for yourself.”

It’s vital, added Alan Krabbenhoft, the dean of IUK’s School of Business, for workers and community leaders alike to recognize the important of technology-based education in today’s world. 

He mentioned a program in Tipton teaching schoolchildren to code in a way that may “be able to take a nut and a bolt and put them together in a particular place,” and a computer science degree at IUK that has become among the university’s most popular.

Krabbenhoft also pointed to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) opportunities increasingly offered by local schools and Ivy Tech Community College.

“I see the educational institutions as having to play an exceptional role in and responsibility in having to address many of these issues” related to making sure workers aren’t left “holding the proverbial bag,” he said, noting such education must include real-world experiences.

“If we can teach them concepts and principles and get them to think creatively, those are the things that make it much more difficult to be replaced by artificial intelligence and technology,” added Krabbenhoft, who also pointed to automation evolutions in agriculture like driverless tractors.

“Because it is that creativity that is unique.”

Still, the rapidly evolving landscape created by automation brings various unknowns.

And the community needs to prepare, said Sparks.

“The thing is, without automation it’s difficult for businesses to compete,” he said. “But with automation, there is some impact on employment levels. From a community perspective, that just reinforces to me that we need to continue our community to working to attract new employers, jobs and investments.”

Sparks said he wants to see an increased focus on designing products and incorporating research and development jobs into Kokomo, including product development.

“One of the reasons is it’s much less likely to be replaced by automation,” he said.

Sparks went on to mention local robotics company AndyMark, noting: “Robotics is a good example of, if automation is growing are there employers we can attract that actually produce products that are part of the automation process.”

Another ideal option, he said, is the advanced materials sector, including ceramics used in aircraft engines to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiencies, saying “the sectors that really show a strong future are the ones that I think we should pursue.”

Blakeman placed an equally large emphasis on diversification.

“Your greatest strength is your greatest liability when you’re a one-industry town,” she said, encouraging the growth of existing local businesses. “So you’ve put a lot of eggs in a handful of baskets. Now the challenge is: how do you diversify? If it were easy you would’ve done it.

“And I don’t think there’s any magic formula that makes it happen. I think there’s some serendipity and quite honestly a lot of hard work and some good luck. Because if it were easy, everyone would do it.”

Automation and artificial intelligence is a complex issue, say local experts, and is something that will require constantly evolution.

But, noted Sparks, it’s not a death-knell.

“It is not time to panic, but it is time to plan,” he said.

Added Krabbenhoft: “I think there will be some jobs that will be better protected, but with our dependence upon agriculture, our dependence upon the auto industries as well as manufacturing, yeah, this will be an uphill battle.

“But the beautiful thing is, I think if we stay ahead of the curve, we’ll be fine.”

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