Are Tri-State Employers - And Their Employees - Ready For More Robots?

By ANN THOMPSON -WVXU Cincinnati Public Radio

MAY 28, 2019

In order to be globally competitive, Tri-State businesses big and small are increasing their use of robots. With reports like the one from The McKinsey Global Institutesignaling workforce change, a Cincinnati futurist says the region should have a strategic plan involving local governments, corporations and educators.

Marvin DeJean, senior managing partner for Gilead Sanders, says in an age of artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and robotics, the community needs to know where the next level of jobs will come from. "How do we retrain and how do we reset expectations for a large swath of people that are going to be caught?" he posits.

DeJean points to Amazon as an example of increased use of robots. Reuters reports the online retail giant is rolling out more of them at dozens of its warehouses. It's unclear how the Hebron fulfillment center will be affected.

Amazon tells WVXU:

"We are both creating jobs and adding automation. Since the time we started introducing robotics at Amazon 2012, we have added tens of thousands of robots to our fulfillment centers while also adding over 300,000 full-time jobs. Our teams work alongside robots and we are excited to continue increasing the technology we use at our sites while growing our global workforce."

Walmart is introducing three types of robots at more than half of its stores. One scans boxes coming off trucks, another checks inventory on shelves and the other scrubs floors.

DeJean wonders if small janitorial companies could be affected as more businesses use robots. Tiara Frierson owns Frierson Services which has the cleaning contract of Cincinnati's largest credit union. Right now robots don't concern her.

"It's kind of very detailed which I don't think robots can get in there and do that as far as for the dusting, getting underneath desks, those little areas where you have to pick things up," she says. "It's a lot of physical work." Frierson is sticking with the human touch.

In 2018, Procter & Gamble told WVXU it planned to have 5,000 robots in the next five years. It already has more than 3,000.

According to DeJean, "What we're seeing is that the water level is going higher. So even in white collar jobs, if you are doing something on a repetitive basis then automation can take over. You are going to see businesses go more and more in that direction."

The velocity of technology is happening so fast, DeJean says, that what used to take 10 years to get here now takes five, and what used to take five years is now taking three.

Tri-State companies are asking him how they can incorporate robotics. They want to know: Is there anyway for me to re-skill my current workforce? He says it takes planning.

In an op-ed for the Cincinnati Business Courier, UC President Neville Pinto and Cincinnati Bell President and CEO Leigh Fox point out a need for businesses and educators to work together to address technology.

"Looking ahead, we believe industry and academia must partner together in more robust, far-sighted ways to ask better questions about the ideal relationships between humanity and technological development," they write.

Other cities are doing this very thing. DeJean says Columbus is a national leader. He says it is thinking strategically about the future with the Columbus 2020 Iniative.

Part II of this WVXU story will air in June, with more detail about "cobots," or robots that work alongside people. (Watch a video of a "cobot" at work below.) Tri-State union leaders will also weigh in with their concerns.