North Carolina is in a global battle for future jobs, and it’s not just pitting one person against another. Instead, imagine your main competitor for a job is IBM’s Watson computer.

Automated technologies are transforming the workforce. Up to a million positions across a broad swath of categories are in danger of elimination or being substantially altered in the next several years. Robots, machine-to-machine communication, 3-D printing and autonomous vehicles are all part of this growing trend.

Looking to spark a new conversation about future job creation, N.C. State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues [IEI] produced the FutureWork Disruption Index for North Carolina. The index was designed as a tool to allow local communities to examine the relationship between job loss projections and its demography. In early June, the economic think tank co-sponsored a forum at Sandhills Community College to discuss its findings.

“What really hit me when we heard about the impacts of technology displacement is we’ve seen manufacturing change dramatically. But we don’t think about other career paths that will be changed the same ways,” said Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress. “Productivity is up in manufacturing though manpower is down because of robotics. We are in a real sea change in terms of what we need to do for education and workforce development.”

HARD TIMES AHEAD

Job losses can cripple an area. Especially in smaller communities, the ability to adapt is challenged. Even when job loss is countered by new job creation, the impact of the transition is enormous.

Locally, projections for loss due to technological unemployment run fairly high at 33 percent, resulting in 23 percent in lost wages. The state average is slightly lower, at 25 percent loss of current jobs and nearly 20 percent of current wages, as a result of automation. Urbanized counties will not be as affected as rural areas. The Sandhills Prosperity Region — which encompasses Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Hoke, Montgomery, Moore, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, and Scotland counties — hits the median level, with experts predicting the loss of 93,000 jobs.

N.C. State economist Mike Walden identified the top 20 occupations deemed most vulnerable to technology-driven unemployment. Low-wage jobs are at highest risk, but automation can reach up the corporate ladder to white collar workers as well.

Substantial future losses are expected among food preparation workers, cooks, waitresses and other food service workers; retail, wholesale and service salespersons; cashiers; truck drivers; accountants, bookkeepers and auditing clerks; landscapers; security guards; and administrative assistants, except in the legal and medical fields.

“The economy is changing and jobs are changing,” said Donnie Charleston, IEI’s economy policy manager. “North Carolina was hit particularly hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs that the industry has been losing for a long time. The concern with automation is the same issue but at an accelerated rate in coming decades.”

Manufacturing has been on the decline in the United States since the 1930s, except for a spike in activity during World War II. Globalization and trade agreements are partly to blame but, according to Charleston, the primary cause for manufacturing job loss is the use of technology.

Looking ahead, the numbers are grim. Automation and technology-enabled offshoring could erase 2.4 million jobs from the state by 2040 — five times the number of jobs lost during the 2008 recession.

“In a community, it used to be one firm with 300 jobs. Today and in the future, it is more likely to be ten firms with 30 jobs,” Charleston said. “The future is more small fish versus big fish for job creation. Many communities are still invested in the idea of attracting a big firm to save their economy, when that may not be a reality. It’s not that you can’t win big firms but it is also important to rethink about economic development through smaller firms.”

Predicting the best path for a future workforce is further challenged by shifting demographics. The state’s population is getting older and growing more racially and ethnically diverse.

Gender disparity in education is another hurdle. The number of men enrolled in college has held steady since 1996 while, in the same time period, some of the traditional routes of male mobility — including manufacturing jobs — have decreased. In contrast, women outpace men by more than 13 percent in college enrollment.

“How do we adapt our systems to meet the new realities of where we’re at and where we are going?” Charleston said. “We don’t want North Carolina to be on the leading edge of job loss as what occurred with manufacturers. Those jobs have not come back and we do not want to see that happen again. Can we adapt? We need to reframe our mindset so we are on the leading edge of economic development in the future.”

HIGH TECH GOES LOW-SKILL

Automation covers a broad category of technologies. It can replace jobs, certainly, but more commonly automation is used in conjunction with or to enhance the human job role. Jobs moving towards full-automation include telemarketers, accountants and auditors, retail sales, technical writers, real estate agents, word processors or typists, machinists, and journalists. Jobs considered relatively safe because technology cannot displace human labor include recreational therapists, dentists, athletic trainers, clergy, chemical engineers, editors and firefighters.

Much of the basic technology is already at our fingertips. Self-ordering kiosks at a favorite restaurant, checkout stations in the neighborhood grocery store, and swipe-and-go fuel pumps are familiar technology now delivered by machines in roles that only a generation ago were strictly occupied by people. At home, consumers have their choice of robotic vacuum cleaners, automatic pet-feeding stations and self-regulating thermostats. These devices don’t eliminate household chores but are designed to simplify those tasks.

Meridian is an Aberdeen-based manufacturer founded by Chris Gilder as a custom computer company in 1999. The business has since been transformed into an industry leader in self-service kiosks with blue-chip clients like McDonald’s, Dell Computers, Delta Airlines, Mercedes-Benz and Food Lion.

“Automation in manufacturing happened a long time ago. That is nothing new. But self-service is transforming the way companies look at their whole business structure,” said Asa Moran, sales executive and marketing lead for Meridian. “It will take away some menial jobs but, more than that, it will reallocate the labor force and help companies to create a more efficient workforce.

“We never approach a project to replace humans. We approach a project by looking at ways a company can provide a better experience for their customers, and creating ways for companies to streamline and be more efficient,” he said. “If you give a better store experience, you are not taking away jobs. By and large, the increased efficiency will increase sales which add jobs.”

Meridian has deployed thousands of indoor and outdoor kiosks. For people looking to avoid long lines or navigate quickly to where they want to go, an interactive self-service kiosk is handy solution. The company subscribes to insourcing and manufactures nearly everything internally, building kiosks from the ground up for self-service ticket booths, way-finding kiosks, parking lots management, and vending and dispensing units.

Two top markets for Meridian’s technology are kiosks designed for tourism and quick-service restaurants.

“If you think about convention and visitors bureaus, these organization look at ways to disseminate information. In a lot of cases, that means a brochure rack. A kiosk can significantly reduce printing costs, shipping costs and paper waste by consumers. This is a case where automation is eliminating an outdated solution from the past,” said Moran.

“We believe the way technology is going will demand a more educated workforce,” he said. “Basic skills jobs are being eliminated but more jobs will be needed at the skilled levels. For example, if a company is looking to automate cashiers, we can create a kiosk for basic bill-paying services but that will not take away the need for people to handle more complex transactions. Quick service restaurants are a big target vertical we’re going after. Frankly, there is a lot of opportunity there.”

Mega-bakery Panera Bread is a solid example of this market. Two years ago, Panera 2.0 was introduced as a series of integrated technologies for ordering, payment and restaurant operations. More than a mobile-payment system or digital ordering process, the Rapid Pick Up and Fast Lane Kiosks were designed to improve order accuracy, reduce wait times and minimize crowding.

Traditional cashiers continue to place the majority of customer orders, but automation accounts for 16 percent of the company’s total sales. Panera projects orders placed, produced and paid for digitally to crest the 20 percent mark by year-end with annual digital sales reaching $1 billion in 2017, and the full Panera 2.0 experience is expected to expand to all of cafe locations over the next three years.

Like manufacturing, the health industry has looked to automation to improve services.

Twelve years ago, FirstHealth of the Carolinas was one of the first in the nation to adopt mobile robots — called TUGs — to deliver medications. Today, this same technology has expanded beyond the pharmacy to provide assistance in the laboratory and materials management departments at Moore Regional Hospital.

“The TUGs replaced human couriers. One reason we transitioned was because it was difficult to staff the department overnight,” said Jim Beaty, associate director of MRHs pharmacy. “But financially to purchase the original three units, it was a wash.”

Decidedly non-threatening, the TUGs look more like rolling file cabinets than robots. Two of the older units remain in service while one was upgraded with a more adaptable model. Each TUG is programmed with a blueprint of the hospital and uses infrared sensors to identify and navigate around unexpected obstacles — including people. The TUGs also call for elevator service independently. The older robots have assigned nursing stations in set locations but the newer unit has dynamic software that allows the pharmacy to assign drawers “on the fly.”

“The new TUG can go anywhere in the hospital. We could not get the same reliability and consistency of deliveries by using people,” said Wesley Cowell, the pharmacy’s administrative director. “The TUGs don’t call in sick.”

The same department also employs a vastly larger, stationary robot for pill-dispensing. This use of technology dates back even further to 21 years ago when FirstHealth was one of the first hospitals in the nation to adopt this system. Based around barcoded identification, the room-sized robot stocks 550 of the most commonly-prescribed drugs and dispenses approximately 90 percent of all oral medications. The robot runs along a rail inside the machine and pulls medications based on the barcode. Nurses then use handheld scanners to match up the medications to the patient.

CHANGING THE GAME

Robots have also entered FirstHealth’s surgical suites. The da Vinci Si system is a good case example of automation that does not replace but instead enhances the human role. Designed to facilitate complex laparoscopic surgical procedures, a surgeon is seated at a large console and controls four interactive robotic arms. The human operator is required to maneuver hand movements that are translated into smaller, precise movements of tiny instruments inside the patient’s body.

For all industries — from food service to healthcare to modern manufacturing — creating a sustainable workforce that can bridge the technological disruption will require innovation and adaptability. But North Carolina has strong competition in this race. Collaboration between businesses and educational institutions is critical.

Within the Sandhills region, examples of these efforts include a partnership between Richmond Community College and Duke Energy to develop an electrical utility curriculum. Students graduate into a field with strong worker demand and high wage-earning potential.

In Moore County, Sandhills Community College students have the opportunity to engage in work-based learning experiences for academic credit. For county high school students, the Advanced Career Center under development will offer advanced classes built around a core curriculum based on personal marketing and business skills.

“Workforce preparedness begins there [the ACC] and is open to every student in the county. I believe having this facility and it being linked into Sandhills Community College is going to be a substantive game changer for Moore County,” said Pat Corso. “You find those types of facilities in urban centers but not in rural areas. My hope is it can be a template for creating more opportunities in rural North Carolina.”

But automation is not the only issue on the table. In North Carolina, the top three actual job loss leaders between 2010 and 2015 were teachers — with 7,102 positions eliminated — trailed far behind by home health aides (3,888) and executive secretaries (3,768.) Rather than technological unemployment, the loss of teachers is a result of outside factors, notably, lack of funding.

“We have a community college that is visionary and open to ideas, but we are only scratching the surface of what we are capable of doing because there is resistance to expanding and growing on that. I’m encouraged by what I have heard locally and would be more encouraged if I heard how to bring these practices in with investment,” said Moore Schools Superintendent Dr. Bob Grimesey. “The bottom line in Moore is, we’ve identified assets.

“We’ve come up with ways to work together but, ultimately, capacity is limited by a locality’s willingness to expand. Today’s discussion is realistic and based on data but this is almost the same conversation I had with a similar group in Virginia in 1991. The challenges today are the same as then.

“These are good ideas but how much are we willing to sacrifice now for the future.”

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