July 6, 2021 by Ethan Oldham
In the face of the labor shortage crisis, some businesses are trying out a potential solution: automation. The pandemic-sansdemic combo has introduced a host of new challenges and opportunities, from stringent health regulations to an exploding e-commerce market. Increasingly, businesses are turning to AI and robotics as a sanitary and productive fix, resulting in a rocketing rise of automation. The best part? Robots always come into work.
Three industries’ experiences illustrate the current rise of automation: warehouses, airlines, and agriculture.
Warehouses saw an enormous escalation in traffic during COVID-19. The explosion of online shopping throughout 2020 and 2021 has greatly increased the rate at which warehouses need to fill orders. Online sales are projected to grow by 50% by 2024, and the resulting direct-to-consumer market requires up to 10 times as many employees to maintain.
In conjunction with this rising demand, warehouse worker health and productivity have been perennial concerns. Workers often walk miles per day, exhausting themselves and spending 70-75% of their productive time traveling.
To address the massive uptick in orders and problematic working conditions, many warehouses are incorporating automation. The hope is that automated processes will be more flexible, efficient, and sanitary.
The robots themselves are wide-ranging, including autonomous forklifts, robotic picking machines, and cleaning robots. Goods-to-person (G2P) systems (such as those autonomous forklifts and picking machines) cut down on worker stress and fatigue while maximizing productivity. The machines are becoming increasingly efficient, in some cases performing their tasks four to five times faster than their human counterparts. The rise of automation in warehouses reduces worker interactions with one another and with warehouse products, creating a more sanitary workplace.
The American Journal of Transportation reports a record number of orders for automation systems over the course of 2020, and automation companies are growing by leaps and bounds in response. Dematic, for example, a major manufacturer of automation systems, is currently hiring 1,000 new employees. Demand for these systems is expected to quadruple by 2023, and the global warehouse automation robots market is projected to hit $37.6 billion by 2030.
Airlines are also experiencing earth-shattering fallout as a result of the labor shortage. As of June 14, Southwest Airlines had over 4,000 empty positions. What’s more, Southwest reported an average of only 14 qualified applicants per hire, down from 42 qualified applicants in 2019. American Airlines has had to cancel hundreds of flights through mid-July, partly due to labor shortages. Delta is also facing intense staffing challenges, particularly over the holidays. To alleviate the issue, the airline is currently attempting to hire 1,000 new pilots by next summer.
As with warehouses, the labor shortage has struck the airline industry in the middle of booming demand. On June 11, more than 2 million travelers passed through airport security checkpoints, the highest number in 15 months. And the airline industry is struggling to keep up. Some are predicting it will take as long as a decade for the aviation market to reach pre-COVID levels.
Airlines are banking on automation to solve many of these challenges. To pare down the administrative time and energy required to process job applications, Southwest has developed an automated chatbot. The chatbot runs 24/7, helping recruiters stay in touch with their candidates, answering candidates’ role-related questions, and keeping candidates updated on the status of their application.
The rise of airline automation extends to facility maintenance too. Many airports have begun using disinfecting robots: Pittsburgh International Airport and Gerald R. Ford International Airport have both adopted autonomous robots with UV-C light technology for cleaning, and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has started using a floor-scrubbing robot.
Agriculture has also taken a severe hit. If current trends continue, US farm employment is on course to drop to its lowest average since the USDA began keeping track in 1996. Between 2001 and 2021, the US lost around a quarter of a million farm workers. The shortage is so bad, in fact, that Alex Cracchiolo of USA Farm Labor Inc. believes we are not far from needing to import our food.
In response to the lack of labor, many farmers and agricultural companies are turning to automation as well. OMNiPOWER and OMNiDRIVE are two products designed to optimize a single farmer’s working ability: OMNiPOWER is a self-propelled power platform that easily interchanges with farm implements, and OMNiDRIVE is a kit that transforms existing tractors into driverless machines. The company advanced.farm recently released an automated harvester that utilizes a system of lasers, computers, and robotics to identify and harvest strawberries. The goal is to increase productivity and relieve workers from some of the labor intensive aspects of the strawberry harvest.
Further down the supply chain, the agricultural industry is looking to the rise of automation in warehouses to maximize efficiency and production. In the end, many of these industries are interconnected.
Whether they maximize workers’ ability to perform a task, or simply take over a task altogether, automated systems are helping businesses accomplish their goals quickly and efficiently. But—and it is an important but—automation can’t solve the labor shortage completely. One way or the other, we need people: and we always will.
First, the automation industry itself relies heavily on humans. Remember that Dematic is seeking to hire 1,000 new employees—but if there aren’t 1,000 employees to hire, we’ve only kicked the can of labor shortage a little further down the road. From programming to manufacturing to installation, the automation industry requires lots and lots of people.
Second, automated solutions themselves present problems. Despite advances in technology, chatbots still struggle to interpret context and understand queries. Last year, the number of worker injuries reported in Amazon’s warehouses was nearly double the industry standard—and the injury rates were noticeably higher at heavily automated locations. On construction sites, there’s a concern that imperfect guiding systems could cause increased injuries to workers. Though automation solves problems, it can also create problems as well.
Third, despite the rapid advancement of automated technology, countless tasks simply can’t be automated. Fields like education, art, healthcare, sales, marketing, and data analysis might be assisted by automation, but still require a human touch. Even in cases where these fields have incorporated automation—such as Oli, the new college enrollment chatbot—the automation is only a supplement to the core team of human workers.
Uniquely human skills like leadership, communication, and problem-solving will always be in demand. For examples, communication was listed as a needed skill in over 4 million job postings in the month of May. The leading poster? Oracle Corporation, a company at the forefront of automating the college financial aid process. If you want automation, you need humans with human skills.
So the rise of automation, while able to manage some of the symptoms of the labor shortage, isn’t really a cure. We need people.
And that’s a very good thing. The labor shortage poses a severe challenge, but it also presents an important lesson: people are irreplaceable. The labor shortage—and automation’s inability to solve it completely—illustrates the value of humans, and stresses to jobseekers everywhere that they are, indeed, essential.