Sunday, October 21, 2018


A cautionary tale for the workforce

  • Menards

Two recent developments locally provided anecdotal evidence that significant workforce changes are coming sooner rather than later.

Eau Claire-based Menards, the third-largest home-improvement retailer in the U.S., plans to build a 121,700-square-foot warehouse with a 60-foot-tall automated system that organizes merchandise and processes orders.

“To be more competitive, we are adding a huge machine enclosed in a steel skin that will help us get products to our customers much faster,” Jeff Abbott, Menards spokesman, said in a Leader-Telegram story by Andrew Dowd.

Abbott described the retail industry as a “fight for survival” and said the new facility will cut costs and allow Menards to keep its prices low.

Arcadia-based Ashley Furniture, one of the world’s largest manufacturers in the industry, recently announced $30,000 in donations to area school districts for three robotics-related programs.

“Not only are students learning about the design, programming and building of a robot, they are also building self-confidence, teamwork and leadership skills,” said Andy Baker, automation and robotics manager for Ashley, in a news release. “There are many great career options that can evolve around STEM (scence, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.”

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Many of us have seen studies like the one cited by the World Economic Forum that predicts nearly two-thirds of children entering school today will ultimately work in jobs that don’t yet exist.

“On average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today, according to our respondents,” reads a WEF report last year titled “Future of Jobs.” “Overall, social skills — such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others — will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.

“In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”

The expansive study was a survey of chief human resources officers at large employers. In detailing a “fourth industrial revolution,” it says key industries in the next few years will be advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and advanced materials, biotechnology and genomics.

•  •  •

Much is made of offshoring jobs to other nations, but by most accounts automation has had more influence on the American worker.

“Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important — it’s not even close,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard, in a New York Times story.

Said M.I.T. researcher David Autor in the piece: “Some of it is globalization, but a lot of it is we require many fewer workers to do the same amount of work. Workers are basically supervisors of machines.”

This is not a criticism of Menards and Ashley, two of the largest employers in western Wisconsin. These companies need to evolve to stay competitive. Many also argue that automation will create new jobs; they’ll just be different than those of the past.

However, it is a call for the workforce in general to prepare for the future. And that future is now. After all, it probably wasn’t too long ago that Ashley didn’t have an automation and robotics manager. Big-picture solutions suggested in the WEF report include rethinking education systems, incentivizing lifelong learning, and cross-industry and public-private collaboration.

“I predict that there will not be a shortage of jobs in the future, but rather a shortage of skills to fill the jobs,” wrote Stephane Kasriel, CEO of the freelancing website Upwork and a member of the WEF’s Council on the Future of Work, Gender and Education. “In 2018, we must finally realize that it’s no longer a matter of human versus machine, but rather human and machine working in tandem to solve the world’s problems.

“It is humans who ultimately decide the next course of action.”

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