Report: Toledo area most vulnerable to automation in employment [The Blade, Toledo, Ohio]

April 05– Apr. 5–It seems safe to predict tractor-trailers will continue hauling the country’s goods across interstate highways in the near future.

Trucking veteran Ed Nagle, however, goes a step further. Even as autonomous vehicle technology advances and shapes the future economy, he expects a human will occupy big-rig driver’s seats for at least a decade to come.

“I tell people, when you’re ready to send your family up in an airplane without a pilot, then people will start to look at the possibility of an 80,000-pound vehicle going down the road unmanned,” said Mr. Nagle, president and CEO at Nagle Companies of Walbridge. “I don’t think we’re going to see that any time soon.”

Automation has for years widely changed the workforce and economy. Companies pursuing efficiency and safety found machines increasingly viable in achieving these goals, often at detriment to workers who lose jobs and income in the process.

The next wave of automation is looming. A recent study predicts it will hit Toledo particularly hard.

The Brookings Institution ranked greater Toledo most vulnerable to automation’s employment effects among the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. While manufacturing and industry were traditionally upended by newer robotization and autonomous systems, Brookings found service-industry jobs, such as fast food work, truck driving, and stock clerking, will be most at risk.

“Automation substitutes for labor,” the report states. “This is the fundamental purpose of workplace technology. If a machine can do a task currently done by humans, it will do it with greater precision, speed, and at a lower cost.”

‘Future of jobs’

The report depicts a striking job outlook. It expects by 2030 that roughly 36 percent of employment nationally will face “medium” automation exposure.

Author Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, said the so-called “future of jobs” began about 30 years ago. It effectively shifted workers from middle-income jobs like manufacturing to work of lower skill and income, he said.

“You’ve been hard hit. These trends are distinct and vivid, and troublesome for the region, but they’re not the end of the story,” Mr. Muro said.

When determining an occupation’s exposure risk, Mr. Muro and co-authors looked at the number of people employed in the region’s various jobs, considered each task that went into performing a given job, and determined whether an autonomous system or technology could complete those tasks.

By this measure, nearly half of all tasks in Toledo-area jobs are replaceable. Analysts did not calculate estimates on number of jobs themselves likely to be affected.

“This is a metric and a story that is particularly important in the Midwest, there’s no doubt about it, and particularly important for Toledo because of its manufacturing history,” Mr. Muro said.

As technology has become more affordable and capable, traditionally service-industry job tasks are increasingly automated, Mr. Muro said. Nearly 87 percent of tasks needed to prepare fast food, for example, are now replaceable, he said.

The region’s occupations with highest employment levels and most tasks at “high risk” of automation replacement are food preparation and service, waitstaff, truck driving, stocking and order filling, and packaging, according to the report.

The most popular occupations with tasks at “low risk” of such replacement are registered nursing, laborers and freight moving, janitorial and cleaning work, customer service, and general and operations managing.

Finally, the fastest-growing area of “low risk” jobs are personal care aides, petroleum engineers, meeting and event planners, community health workers, and marketing research and marketing specialists.

Workers with a bachelor’s degree are expected to fare much better in the more automated working world. The study suggests communities and employers embrace technology, promote continual education, enable smooth changes at work, and ease challenges for struggling employees.

Mr. Muro named as positives an ability to innovate and grow demand for products. Automation complements labor and also increases the value of each remaining human task.

“Much of what is going to be automated are things that are unpleasant parts of jobs, in theory, as these technologies can free up human power to do more interesting things,” Mr. Muro said.

Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said he believes the Brookings’ study omits two important points.

First, Toledo significantly diversified its economy in recent years. Health-care system ProMedica, for example, is by far the city’s largest employer, he said.

Second, Toledo has a history of embracing automation in a way that helped manufacturing employers succeed, as with Jeep production, he said.

While findings regarding service jobs are concerning, every city in this part of the country should have similar worry. It is not unique to Toledo, he said.

Mr. Kapszukiewicz said trade skills development is important. As mayor, Mr. Kapszukiewicz advocates for the HOPE Toledo initiative to raise private funding for education goals.

Mr. Kapszukiewicz referred to the report as a snapshot, not a destiny. Seven years ago, Brookings could not have predicted ProMedica’s growth in Toledo, he said.

“The report speaks to the need for Toledo to be concerned about its future, and I get it. I’m concerned about our future,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz said. “But what I choose to look at it is as a guidepost for the way we need to diversify what we do in this town, to make sure we’re ready to win the future.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles employed 2,289 people in 2010 and 6,802 in 2018 at its Toledo Assembly and Toledo Machining plants.

In a statement, company spokesman Jodi Tinson said automation has been part of FCA operations for decades, with both robots and humans playing an important role.

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

A driver’s seat and steering wheel

In addition to running a Walbridge-based trucking firm, Mr. Nagle advocates for state legislation in the trucking profession as well.

Truck manufacturers are still designing vehicles for 10 years from now with a driver’s seat and steering wheel, Mr. Nagle said. The industry may implement additional automation, or perhaps shift the driver’s role to more of an autopilot, but machines cannot yet resolve a number of issues, Mr. Nagle said.

He questioned their ability to navigate snow and freezing rain, or a deer suddenly jumping in front of the truck. Workers are still needed to back in the vehicle.

“There are so many holistic issues involved in the trucking industry that need to be considered, more than just the technical aspect of designing a truck that can drive itself,” Mr. Nagle said.

Dennis Earl, president of UAW Local 14, recalled there were about 4,500 hourly workers when he joined General Motors’ Toledo Transmission plant in 1984. That number is closer to 1,400 now, he said.

Outsourcing led to most of this reduction, but some of it resulted from automation, Mr. Earl said.

“Change is coming. We need to capture that, and be good stewards of that. We can’t just go, ‘I wish it were the past,’ ” Mr. Earl said.

For industries facing new automation exposure, Mr. Earl suggested a renewed focus on exceptional customer service and training. He expressed concern about the general future of work, as some will not be skilled to perform jobs such as servicing high-tech machines.

“How do we provide meaningful employment for people that want it, but aren’t capable?” he said.

In a company statement, spokesman Kevin Nadrowski said General Motor’s greatest asset is its people.

GM’s strategic use of automation in our manufacturing plants is primarily focused on supporting our operators in work assignments that have been identified as difficult, dirty, or dangerous,” it reads. “While there typically are efficiencies associated with the usage of automation, our primary focus is not to displace people.”

Kevin Garvey, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75, sees rising technology and eCommerce as rapidly changing the grocery business. His group resents 32,000 workers, primarily in retail with some employed in packing and packaging.

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods Market in 2017 spurred this transition. Changes include customers’ handheld scanners and increased online grocery orders. The latter of which bypasses traditional brick-and-mortar stores, Mr. Garvey said.

Kroger added the service to its Perrysburg store and others last year.

A benefit is these innovations present an opportunity to organize a new group of technical workers, Mr. Garvey said.

But the economy is based on continued consumption, which requires people having money to spend, Mr. Garvey said. It’s also a challenge for communities to retain a larger tax base with less service industry work, he said.

“My concern is, what are we going to do with the masses of people when these perceived entry-level positions are no longer there? It’s like finding someone who pumps your gas for you,” Mr. Garvey said, referring to full-service stations of the past.

At a recent OhioMeansJobs Lucas County job fair, applicants made their in-person pitch at various company stands. Adient, Courtyard by Marriott, FedEx, and Taco Bell were among those on site.

Bruce Fraser, a city leader for Taco Bell, said increased kiosk and mobile delivery technology brings the benefit of more access for customers.

Still, some patrons actually refuse to order by kiosk, mistakenly believing those machines take away jobs, Mr. Fraser said. In fact, the business invests more in labor to make food as a result of such automation, he said.

“People eat when they can, especially [with] busy schedules or if they have meetings,” Mr. Fraser said of changes over the years. “We offer delivery, and kiosks, and all these things to help support that and add that access for everybody so that it’s easier. But we’re not doing it by cutting hours.”

Lucas County stays on top of automation trends in preparing a workforce ready for anything, said Tonia Saunders, county Workforce Development Board executive director.

“One of the things that we really want to put in front of job seekers are career-path opportunities, and jobs that have living wages,” Ms. Saunders said.

Programs are also in place for daycare, transportation, mental health, and substance abuse, she said.

Kathryn Hopkins, a job fair attendee, said she believes automation will supplement — not replace — the office work she wishes to do, and even create new jobs she could possibly obtain.

“You’re going to need someone to fix that machine when it doesn’t work. You’re going to need someone to replace that machine when it does stop working,” she said.

First Published April 5, 2019, 8:00am

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