Like Elemoose, McLane has figured out how to use automation in strategic ways to alleviate burdens on workers and increase its production volume. The Ozark Distribution Center—which delivers to customers in Missouri, Kansas, most of Oklahoma and parts of Arkansas and Nebraska—runs on artificial intelligence software created by German company Schaefer Systems International Inc. Known as a teach-in system, the software takes laser measurements of, weighs and photographs any new packaged food that comes to the facility. The system uses this information to determine the best path for the item, including storage location, packing method and more. Once an item has been “taught-in,” the system automatically recognizes similar products and treats them in the same way.
Machines like the robotic pallet exchanger and stretch wrapping stations allow for uniformity within the distribution center and keep employees from having to do these cumbersome tasks. For example, in one hour, an employee can wrap 10 pallets, whereas a robotic arm can wrap 40 in the same timespan. The robotic cranes in the warehouse allow McLane to store products 105 feet above the ground, a height that would be too dangerous for people alone to manage. “We believe we’ve helped, not hindered, them,” Wainwright says. “We’re not looking to eliminate our teammates’ jobs.”
Jobs at Risk
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the possibility of automation-fueled job loss. A 2013 Oxford University study estimates that 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at high risk of being automated “relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two,” the study’s authors write. Locally the stats are even starker. Researchers at the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis at the University of Redlands in California examined data from the Oxford study and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine which metropolitan areas could be most affected by automation. They found Joplin has the greatest percentage of jobs at risk of automation in Missouri with Springfield ranking third behind St. Joseph. The reason 417-land tops the state chart is because the region has a higher percentage of people compared to the rest of Missouri that are employed in occupations likely to be automated. Those include food preparation and service positions as well as sales and sales-related jobs.
Despite these statistics, Brown isn’t too concerned. “In terms of long-term, widespread technological unemployment for long periods of time, I don’t see it happening,” he says, referring to his arguments about humans’ comparative advantage over machines in critical thinking and analysis, as well as the future economic opportunities that will be created by automation. He does acknowledge, however, that jobs are changing as machines are taking over repetitive, mechanical tasks.
This might not be such a bad thing, though. People could largely avoid onerous jobs, and Brown says automation could improve society’s quality of life. He points to the difference in standards of living today versus in the 17th or 18th centuries when people worked longer hours with less reward. “One of the things technological progress offers is the opportunity for more leisure, less labor, but maintaining or even improving your standard of living so you can ultimately live a better life,” Brown says. At some point in the future, he says our full-time work week could decrease from its current 40 hours simply because of technology.
Elemoose and McLane deny that automation has caused them to let staff go. (It’s worth noting that McLane hired its staff at the Ozark Distribution Center directly into an automated environment, as opposed to introducing automation into a facility that previously operated with only manual labor.) In both cases, the companies have not only retained their workforces but also grown them. “I know that’s not always the case with automation, but that is how it has worked for us,” Elemoose’s Croney says. “I would like it if it continued working that way, but I don’t know that that’s going to happen.” In particular, she says jobs could be eliminated if the company automates its enterprise resource planning software. Then again, she says, “They may actually just become valuable in another area.”
Still, Croney says Elemoose can only automate so much. “So many projects we do for people are custom for that specific experience, so by the time you set up an automation for something, you’ve already created [the product], and they only want it one time,” she says. Similarly, Wainwright says McLane only employs automation when it makes sense. “Our business is very complex,” he says. Because the company serves clients of various sizes, it makes sense that it incorporates different distribution methods. “I don’t see [layoffs happening], at least not in the near future,” Wainwright says.
Whether the disconnect between industry’s assurances that jobs are secure and academia’s warnings of the opposite is one of varying time frame isn’t clear. Still, there are strategies the community and employers in 417-land can take to insulate themselves from automation’s impact.