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Craftsmen have long feared that an era of self-driving trucks and robotic fast food servers will wipe out their jobs. Now they find the same workers in demand across most of the developed world, while economies are returning from the pandemic and governments and employers are asking another question: where are the robots when we need them?
Covid-related locks and travel restrictions have already accelerated automation in warehouses, factories and even restaurants. The political setback in many rich countries against confidence in migrant labor means the current shortage of everything truck drivers and fruit pickers to social care workers can survive the recovery from the pandemic.
This is a possible impetus for a new round of automation – and there are historical precedents. By 1964, American workers were expected to provide more jobs at the end of the two-decade Bracero program that brought millions of Mexicans to America to do farm work. Instead, it has a wave of mechanization by farmers.
Yet workers in at least some of the current shortage sectors cannot be replaced by robots any time soon, as it is difficult for machines to do their job and technology is taking longer than expected to complete.
Many advanced manufacturing economies have already taken automation to high levels in sectors where it is best suited. Machines are ideal for predictable, repetitive tasks in a controlled environment, such as on production lines. The surge in online shopping during the pandemic has meanwhile accelerated the shift to automated systems to speed up orders. Convoys of autonomous trucks are already being tested and could soon replace drivers, at least on open highways and between distribution centers. The technology may repeat complex trips to supermarkets in the city center or filling stations.
It is more difficult to use machines for tasks that require agility in irregular environments, cognitive skills or interaction with an unpredictable real world. Agriculture has long been highly mechanized to prepare the soil, plant seeds or harvest crops. But farmers and the food industry still rely on human hands to locate and pick fruit without damaging it, or to debone chickens. Coronavirus has encouraged American meat processors to invest in automation, but is often used with people who still do the most skilled work.
Indeed, it is becoming clear that robots are often best used to expand and not replace human skills. Automation of support roles is likely to spread, also in services. With an aging population and shrinking workforce, Japan already uses robots in nursing homes, schools and offices, as security guards, cleaners or companions for the elderly. Visit a hair salon too long, and you may find a robot sweeping the floor or taking bookings while people do the styling.
A further obstacle to automation is that businesses and employers who are currently short of labor often work in highly competitive, low-margin sectors and struggle to build capital to invest in technology. To increase productivity here, governments may need to provide better incentives, for example through grants or tax cuts.
However, a significant number of jobs will be difficult to automate in the near future – so filling domestic deficits will improve payment and conditions and invest in training. The Conservative government in the UK after Brexit, among others, says it is committed to doing so. How much it will cost and its effect on prices is only now beginning to become clear.