Is the Great Robot Job Takeover a Myth? Getty Images

Is the Great Robot Job Takeover a Myth?

Robots are increasing productivity, but not at the cost of manufacturing jobs.

A dystopia populated by robots doing the work of humans may make for great cinema, but in real life, human manufacturing labor hasn't been replaced in a robot coup, say Brookings Institution scholars Scott Andes and Mark Muro.

Andes and Muro use a March study out of London’s Center for Economic Research as a jumping-off point to compare job growth in manufacturing around the world with growth in use of robots. The London study, Robots at Work, finds that robots’ impact on the gross domestic product is similar to that of the steam engine and U.S. highways, when those innovations were new.

Muro, policy director of Brooking’s Metropolitan Policy Program, observed this week in his blog, The Avenue, that countries that are deploying more robots than the United States are actually losing fewer manufacturing jobs. (The data goes through 2012, so any changes in the past two years remain to be seen.)

For instance, Andes and Muro write, Germany uses three times as many robots per hour worked than the United States, yet lost only 19 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2012, after robots were introduced into the workforce.

Korea, France and Italy also lost fewer manufacturing jobs than the United States, though they enlisted more robots. Conversely, the UK and Australia lost a higher percentage of manufacturing jobs than those countries, while bringing in fewer robots.

If the decline in manufacturing employment was proportional to the increase in robots, writes Muro, “the United States should have lost one-third more manufacturing jobs than it actually did, and Germany should have lost 50 percent more, while the United Kingdom lost five times more than it should have.”

However, the London study did find some evidence that robots hurt manufacturing employment for low-skilled workers, and also, less dramatically, for middle-wage workers.

Muro said in an interview that more study is needed to zero in on why robots’ rise and manufacturing employment declines don’t correlate . “It may have to do with the different ways [countries] are organizing work,” he says. “Maybe the workers have been better trained, or are more adept at working with robotics to drive automation.”

He adds that other countries’ stronger vocational track may be a factor, providing more training for high-tech jobs on robots. “No one wouldn’t say that the United States excels at vocational training—at least I wouldn’t. I think we have a lot of work to do.”

Muro considers the London study something of a breakthrough because it includes not just government but industry data on robotics. “For all of the back and forth, all of the arguments and both fears and big claims, we haven’t had clear evidence in formal productivity data,” he says. “So this is a big deal.”

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