SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A robot may replace you but there is also a good chance you could be working with it or doing something different at the worksite.

Economists may differ on how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact automation in the workforce, but the pandemic has at least an indirect role in the pursuit of automation by business and industry in the U.S., three professors in South Dakota said.

“I would say the biggest impact has been making more people aware of what people in manufacturing and robotics and automation already knew. Before the pandemic we all knew there was a labor shortage… and it was only going to get worse and worse and worse,” said Pierre Larochelle, head of the department in mechanical engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Joe Santos, an economics professor at South Dakota State University, said while the pandemic may have caught employers off guard as employees left jobs or were sick. Yet, as most employers are already thinking about how to drive costs out of the production process so the push to automation is more general than a defense mechanism because of the pandemic.

Still, “No doubt the pandemic has gotten, if you will, the wheels turning…,” Santos said.

The labor shortage and supply chain issues during the pandemic has forced businesses in all sectors to consider what things should be automated, said Jeffrey McGough, department head and professor in computer science and engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

The robot boogeyman

“This is not a matter of replacing jobs. I know the the boogeyman in the 1970s was that robotics was going to destroy jobs. That was the myth that was put out there for very specific political reasons. It worked very well. It scared the country out of robotics,” McGough said.

Automated machine made at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Photo from the university.

But the research and data can be still be scary such as a recent analysis by which says 44.7% of all jobs in the Sioux Falls area are at risk of being automated. The same analysis says South Dakota and Nevada have the most workers at risk of being replaced by automation. But the three professors said jobs at risk for automation is only part of the story.

Industry and business may be looking more at automation now because of the labor shortage but business and industry have also pursued automation to increase production and cut costs.

“…several economic impact studies on industrial robots showing that it’s a net zero or net positive impact in terms of job creation with automation. What it does is shift jobs from more manual labor to more higher tech jobs that require more training, more knowledge and more skills,” Larochelle said.

Japan pursued automation 30 years ago by investing money in robotics and automation, McGough said. Before the pandemic they had lower unemployment and higher employment rates and higher levels of automation, he said. The country found that one job may have been lost but more than one job was created.

If a job is lost or disrupted because of automation and it’s replaced by a job requiring more skills, increasing a worker’s production and reduces costs, that in turn it will result in a higher wage, Santos said.

What does a robot or automated job look like?

Larochelle said automated jobs are all around including fully automated mobile meat processing plants.

(A) whole carcass comes in one side and out comes shrink-wrapped meat,” Larochelle said.

The cheese on a frozen pizza is added through an automated system, Larochelle said. “No human is making your frozen pizza,” he said.

McGough said automation includes robots and artificial intelligence include computer software that allows a business to receive phone app payments or automated telephone answering systems at a business. Some jobs may be replaced by automation, others will change, he said.

A student works with robotic equipment at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. University photo

The automotive manufacturing industry is an example.

Larochelle said an assembly line worker used to lift a tire and install all the tire’s lugs nuts by hand using a power drill. Now, a robotic arm lifts the tire, puts in place and installs all the lug nuts at the same time, under the guidance of the line worker, he said.

FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2018, file photo robots weld the bed of a 2018 Ford F-150 truck on the assembly line at the Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Repetitive work that is now done by humans may be better and more efficiently done by automation, McGough said. But, someone will still need to guide the process and work with that automation, he said.

The  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated in January 2021 that 14% of all jobs were at high risk of automation. Examples of those are food preparation and land transportation. Low-educated workers were at the greatest risk.

The Brookings Institute said about 36 million jobs in the U.S. were at high risk of automation. Those included jobs traditional[ly] considered lower wage and skill[s] such as food service but also insurance sales agents and real estate brokers.

Santos said the service industry which includes jobs in restaurants and hotels was hit particularly hard.

Less travel, COVID-19 concerns, mask requirements all contributed to a loss of employees and revenue in the service industry.

But as the service industry struggles to find workers, will they be replaced by automation?

At the least, there will be a disruption and displacement in that type of labor, Santos said.

A technician makes an adjustment to a robot at Miso Robotics’ White Castle test kitchen in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, July 9, 2020. Robots that can flip burgers, make salads and even bake bread are in growing demand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some distance between workers and customers. Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will test the robot arm that can cook french fries and other foods. The robot, dubbed Flippy, is made by Pasadena, California-based Miso Robotics. (Miso Robotics via AP)

The technology for a fully-automated restaurant was developed about 15 years ago, he said. But, most of American society does not want a fully automated restaurant, Larochelle said.

Santos said there will always be disruptions in low-skill labor jobs but they will always be needed to some degree. The service industry requires a certain number of interpersonal skills jobs that will be needed, Santos said.

No Iron Man on the horizon

“Pop culture, movies, super heros make expectations way up here,” Larochelle said. “We’re a long way from that.”

There is no Iron Man around the corner, he said.

“Robots are just machines” McGough said. “All these things are just appliances to replace one thing that a human does. 

“We don’t have any general purpose machines like people.”

Fancy robots that seem to do a lot of things, “are faking it,” McGough said.

Humans in the workforce are still needed, the three professors said.

Yet, as the work humans do changes they will need more knowledge of technology, the professors said.

Santos said workers who know even sophisticated skills sets in welding or plumbing can’t expect to do the job the same way for their entire career.

A basic understanding of how machines and humans interact or how technology “talks” is as important as math, reading and writing or the traditional three Rs, Larochelle said.

All also agreed critical thinking and analytical skills will be important as people transition in the workforce.