How automation is changing the jobs outlook: An educator's perspective

Training needs to reflect new manufacturing workforce realities, UAFS dean says.

Ken Warden is dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. UAFS offers both technical certificate and associate’s degree programs in tracks such as robotics technology as well as traditional bachelor’s degree programs, meeting a need in the community the university serves for industrial professionals of varying backgrounds and experience levels. Warden talked with Plant Services about automation’s implications on the manufacturing workforce and on education, and on what he sees as imperative to meet workforce needs going forward.

PS: What automation trends do you see affecting the manufacturing workforce?

KW: I’ve been directly involved in technical education for the past 18 years. Education like other things is kind of cyclical, and I see that swinging back toward workforce education. I think we had really a surge in that after Sputnik, after the Russians beat us to the moon. But then as we moved in to the late ’70s and early ’80s, we saw more of a focus on academia and higher education. And I think that really since more of the agricultural economy has become automated, now we’re starting to see that in our industrial economy, and those STEM skills we focused on in the ‘50s and ‘60s, now we’re back to that point where we’re kind of low on the scale – we started telling our kids, “Hey, you have to go to school so you don’t have to work like me.” And I think at some level we did ourselves a disservice.

The sweatshop days of manufacturing are gone. Those don’t really exist anymore in the U.S. Today, as you know, our manufacturing is very clean; it’s very safe; it’s very technologically advanced and automated. And I think it’s going to continue to be more so.

Robots are here to stay; automation’s here to stay. Anything that can be done by a machine is going to be done by a machine. Look at what an automated teller can do today, and look at the number of people that that one machine has replaced. And you know what? ATMs are soon to be a thing of the past. You take a picture of the check you want to deposit with your cellphone app and it’s deposited, and you never see the bank or an ATM for that matter. These technological advances keep happening, and now they’re getting to the point of predictability with these high-end algorithms that people write. Many things that we think we may need a person for, a child that’s born today or who’s 5 years old now is not going to have that need. I’m probably the last generation, as a Gen Xer, that feels like I need to have interaction. I see a reduction in that.

PS: How much of an issue do you think deskilling is?

KW: Middle-skill jobs are quickly becoming low-skill jobs. With manual labor – most things you can do are automated. Especially in situations where you have repetitive motions and repetitive actions and standardized work. If you can standardize it, many times you can design a machine and write a program to do it.

In smaller mom-and-pop shops, maybe the economy of scale doesn’t justify it, but it doesn’t take long with many components or parts to justify it, because labor is not getting cheaper, and machinery is.

PS: What’s your take on the current relationship between academia and industry?

KW: We see great wins when industries and education entities work together in finding solutions. We have some really good programs that already exist at Ft. Smith. We have been a university for just under 14 years. But we still service the regional demand for technical certificates and associate degrees, and we have a very linear path from those degrees to a bachelor’s degree.

Any time we can find ways to dovetail the Department of Labor and apprenticeship model to the academic model – we have to make sure we do it right, we can’t reduce rigor and skill sets – but if we can bring those systems together, I think it’s a win-win. Because you end up reducing time to a degree, you can end up reducing the expense of a degree; and you can also help someone especially in a manufacturing field reach the academic credentials that sometimes are necessary for them to see career advancement.

Most of the (Bureau of Labor Statistics’) projected new job openings are going to require something more than a high school diploma but maybe less than a bachelor’s degree. We have those here, and what we also have that I’m very proud of is a linear path to higher degree attainment.

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