It’s easy to fall prey to panic around automation. It’s also just as easy to dismiss it outright. As always, the truth almost certainly lies somewhere between these two extremes – although exactly where has yet to be determined. Both companies and regulators will play an important role in determining the impact of automation on the future workforce.
As someone who often speaks with technologists, roboticists and the VCs who invest in them, I think we tend to look beyond some of these broader concerns, in favor of the idea of a future where automation either has a new class created better and better paying jobs, or simply remove the need for work altogether.
In my experience, the truly utopian outcome is never the right one. Life is more subtle, the future more nuanced and, more often than not, bad things tend to have a disproportionate impact on those in society with the fewest resources to defend themselves. It’s a topic that we knew would be at the heart of some of the conversations we’re having at today’s TC Sessions: Robotics event, so we decided to agree with someone who has about an equal amount of insight into the subject can offer as anyone at the moment.
United States Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, was a slam dunk for the event. In addition to a background as a union organizer, he hails from Boston, who served as mayor of the city for six years before being tapped by Joe Biden for a cabinet position in March 2021.
Walsh’s take on automation is pragmatic, noting, “I’ve been in politics for 25 years and for 25 years we’ve been talking about automation replacing people.”
He adds, “We were forward looking in the city of Boston. Innovation brings different kinds of jobs. How do we make sure people are skilled and educated to actually access those jobs. If you don’t, that has natural consequences for people.”
This comes to an important and nuanced point in the automation conversation. While many agree that technology will continue to create more and better jobs in the long run, what will happen to workers in the short run? How can we support and possibly train them to be better prepared for the future? And who ultimately does that responsibility fall on?
“The government needs to look at how we invest in developing our workforce and make sure we put the money into good training programs, community college programs, Job Corps centers and the like,” he says.
Walsh adds that the companies running the automation must also take on some of that responsibility.
“I think companies need to invest more in their workforce and potential workforce,” he says. “This is their chance to create a workforce that works for them. This public-private partnership is important, but I think companies are going to invest more in human capital because they want loyalty to the company.”
Walsh has spent much of his time as a secretary on the road, visiting manufacturing sites and discussing Biden’s economic policies. Those trips have taken him to a number of factories, warehouses and logistics facilities for companies like GM and UPS, where the workforce is often evenly split between humans and robotic workers. He is quick to add that he’d like to visit an Amazon facility, but hasn’t had the chance yet.
However, he has organized meetings with unions as workplaces across the country embrace a new impetus for labor organization. In May, Walsh and Vice President Kamala Harris met with organizers from Amazon, Starbucks and REI. The secretary is pushing back the tendency of companies to take an antagonistic approach to unions.
“Whether it’s Starbucks, REI, or Amazon, they organized a reason,” Walsh says. “They organized because they felt they were undervalued and underpaid, they felt the workplace was unsafe – for whatever reason. Let’s say they sign a contract – that’s where the relationship really needs to start thinking about a joint partnership and how you move the business forward. How do you ensure that the company is successful? What the labor movement needs to do a little better to sell to – not just the members representing the members – but to the leadership of the company, that we are not here to delay you and put you out of business, we are here to make you successful.”