Intelligent machines increasingly scooting across America’s warehouse floors show just how. Companies use automated transporters to move packages without a human forklift driver. A few years ago, their adoption would have meant a layoff. These days, it means a promotion.
“People are so needed that it’s nearly impossible to displace a good worker,” says John Hayes, Charlotte, North Carolina-based vice president of sales and marketing at Vecna Robotics, which makes mechanized helpers for manufacturers and shippers. “What they’re looking to do is automate the simplest of functions — point-to-point transfers — take those people, and move them to more value-added job.”
Early in a business cycle, productivity-enhancing investments can spell trouble for workers: “streamlining” and “efficiency” can sound a lot like “unemployment” to some observers. But in this tight labor market, technology investment could improve productivity and give companies room to raise wages without eroding profit. And employees transferred to more training-intensive positions could see their future career prospects improve.
“Workers are more likely to reap the gains from productivity when they have more bargaining power,” said Nick Bunker, a Washington-based economist at hiring website Indeed.com who focuses on the U.S. labor market.
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