Robot Growing Pains: Two U.S. Factories Show Tensions of Going Digital

Robot Growing Pains: Two U.S. Factories Show Tensions of Going Digital

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A job seeker departs the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York
A job seeker departs the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York, April 12, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Timothy Aeppel
COLUMBUS, Ind. (Reuters) 

When Sandy Vierling took a job at a new robot-packed factory her company built just a few miles from an older plant where she made automotive exhaust systems, she crossed into the future of manufacturing in the United States

She didn’t like it at all.

Auto supplier Faurecia SA‘s <EPED.PA> new plant – dubbed Columbus South to distinguish it from the older operation known as Gladstone – is glistening clean and the physical work is lighter. But the 57-year-old found her new job had long hours and was monotonous – loading parts onto conveyors that fed robots all day. She also missed the interaction with coworkers she had at Gladstone.

Other workers at the new plant complain that they do not get to fix machines when they jam. Technicians swoop in to do that.

“I was stressed all the time,” she said.

 

 

President Donald Trump has put bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States at the center of his economic and trade agenda. But when jobs actually come – as they have here in southern Indiana – many factory workers are not prepared for them, and employers are having trouble hiring people with the needed skills.

 

U.S. manufacturing job openings stand near a 15 year high and factories are hiring workers at the fastest clip since 2014, with many employers saying the hardest-to-fill jobs are those that involve technical skills that command top pay

In 2000, over half of U.S. manufacturing workers had only high school degrees or less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, 57 percent of manufacturing workers have technical school training, some college or full college degrees, and nearly a third of workers have bachelors or advanced degrees, up from 22 percent in 2000.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the digitalization sweeping the economy is forcing employers to hunt for a different mix of workers – and pay more in some cases for workers with technical skills.

A new study by Muro found those with the highest digital skills saw average wage growth of 2 percent a year since 2010, while wages for those with medium skills grew by 1.4 percent and those at the bottom by 1.6 percent.

 

SKILLS MISMATCH

The skills mismatch is playing out at Faurecia’s factories in Columbus.

 

 

The company’s older Gladstone plant has 500 production workers and only a handful of robots. The new plant, Columbus South, has about 400 workers and about 100 robots, including 30 automated guided vehicles that move materials instead of human-driven tugs. Both plants make exhaust systems.

Faurecia invested $64 million in its new plant, and invited trained workers from the old plant to apply for jobs in the new one. Many workers, including Vierling, were lured by higher wages. She saw her pay jump from $16.65 an hour to $18.80 at Columbus South. About 150 made the move, according to the union that represents workers in both facilities, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

There’s no plan to shutter the older plant, but rather to introduce automation there in phases as well.

But some said no to the opportunity.

 

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