When The Terminator was released in 1984, the potential – and far-fetched – hazards of robotics and artificial intelligence was brought to the silver screen and to the minds of a new, increasingly tech-savvy generation.
But as 2015 draws to a close, people now hold conversations with their smartphones and depend on robotics more than ever for everything from manufacturing to prostheses.
Alabama’s automotive production sector is no exception, as automation within the industry has gained traction across the board, paving the way for new high-tech jobs with high wages.
However, as the sector grows and evolves, more companies than ever are looking to automate their facilities, which has many wondering if the place once occupied by the traditional factory worker will be replaced by a cold, calculating machine.
The Rise of the Machines
Alabama’s four original equipment manufacturers – Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz – have already realized the potential of automation, which is a trend state leaders see as beneficial.
“Automation and robotics have become pervasive in all advanced manufacturing settings, not just automotive,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “Those skills are transferable between industries and highly in demand across the state.”
The automotive capital base in recent years has grown for robotics and automation. But some economists believe there is little risk that automation will overtake the demand for qualified, well-trained employees.
Dave Andrea, senior vice president and chief economist for the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, told the BBJ that a shortage exits for employees in the automotive sector, which opens the door for future job growth.
“We know two things: first, there will be a large cohort of retirees coming up due to the average age of our automotive workforce; second, North American production will continue to grow, perhaps by an additional 1 million units over the next five years,” Andrea said. “These two trends will keep the demand for automotive employment.”
Andrea also said 36 percent of OESA members have mentioned that they will moderately or significantly increase hourly production employment next year and 51 percent say they are having difficulty in filling these positions.
As plants around the state incorporate robotics, companies like Toyota have been vocal about the need for manpower in addition to the benefits of automated systems used in production.
Kimberly Ogle, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, told the BBJ that there are many opportunities for high-paying jobs in manufacturing – now and in the future.
“One of our biggest challenges is finding enough skilled technicians to meet the increasing needs of advanced manufacturing,” Ogle said. “In fact, skilled technician is the No. 1 unfilled job opening in the U.S., with more approximately 600,000 unfilled positions.”
A lack of skill, not job openings
The most pressing issue as robotics become further integrated in automotive production is the shortage of skilled labor – namely in maintenance work.
Robert Burns, senior public relations manager with Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, said that while technicians for robots are needed to program and maintain the machines, there is a greater need for multi-skill maintenance workers at this time.
“These individuals need to be able to perform basic electrical, mechanical and programmable logic controller work at most automotive operations,” Burns said. “I don’t believe the market will be flooded in the near future.”
Another misconception surrounding industrial automation is that it will ultimately eliminate jobs, and – such as the case with The Terminator– eliminate the need for manpower altogether.
Bill Taylor, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, told the BBJ that increased automation will add jobs to the sector, not terminate them.
“With continued expansions and increases in production at every automaker, the demand for workers in the state’s automotive industry remains very strong,” Taylor said. “The growth of automation and robotics in the automotive plants is actually creating new employment opportunities and a demand for a different set of skills. Going forward, the industry will need a pipeline of multi-skilled workers.”
Many projects have come online recently to promote Alabama’s growing automotive sector, including the partnership of education and business at high schools and colleges around the state.
Taylor said going forward, the industry will need a pipeline of multi-skilled workers to support its growth.
“Our high schools, two-year institutions and universities all have an important role in meeting that demand,” Taylor said. “It’s also important to understand that the skill sets required to work in a modern automotive plant are transferable to other advanced manufacturing operations.”
Ogle said Toyota Alabama has responded to this need to create a pipeline of skilled workers by partnering with Calhoun Community College to establish the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program.
“The AMT program is a dual work/study program that allows students to gain invaluable industry work experience that perfectly aligns with what they are learning in the classroom,” Ogle said. “Plus, students earn a wage that more than covers their education costs.”
Ogle also said at the end of the two-year program, students will have earned enough to graduate debt free and will be fully prepared for a high-in-demand multi-skilled maintenance position.
Canfield pointed out that the need for transferable skills in the workforce was the inspiration behind one major workforce development effort at the state level.
“Those skills are a key reason we developed the Alabama Robotics Technology Park, a one-of-a-kind training facility that assists companies and equips Alabama workers with these valuable skill sets,” Canfield said.
The park is a collaboration between the state of Alabama, Calhoun Community College, AIDT and robotics industry leaders from around the country. The park is made up of three individual training facilities, each specializing in a specific industry need. The three facilities have an investment of approximately $73 million, which includes robotics equipment.
Taylor also cited Kamtek’s recent expansion in Birmingham, which will bring a new level of technology to their operation in the growing supplier sector.
“(Kamtek) is an example of the kind of growth that can occur,” Taylor said. “Their expansion, which is directly linked to the growth of their customers in this region of the country, is an excellent example of what we should continue to see among suppliers.”
Sean McAlinden, vice president for strategic studies and chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research, said as the industry – and its culture – move further into the 21st century, the need, and most importantly the wages, will be here to stay.
“The extra automation will allow workers to do jobs robots can’t do – work that will be insourced from suppliers far away,” McAlinden said. “Plus – you need people to program and maintain the robotics. Those are good-paying jobs.”