Automation and Employment

Martin Fairbank
Typography

A sign at my local courier office seems to claim that there is a shortage of robots to replace humans. In fact, the situation is the reverse. Currently in North America, in many industries, there is a shortage of humans to carry out jobs that cannot be automated.

In 2018, the rate of unemployment in both Canada and the US hit its lowest rate of the 21st century, at 5.8% in Canada and 3.9% in the US. Some of the effects in the forest products industry have been dramatic. There have been a lot of retirements from the baby boomer generation in recent years, and jobseekers are not easily attracted to some jobs in the industry. An executive at a large lumber company recently stated that the average age of their truck drivers is over 60, and very few young people choose this as a career. A pulp producer had to slow down production due to lack of trucks to deliver wood chips last December. And the lead times for delivery of large capital items in engineering projects are being delayed for up to several months because the suppliers don’t have the manpower to deliver any faster.

There has long been a fear that automation eliminates jobs. As a recent World Bank publication states, workers undertaking routine tasks that are “codifiable” are the most vulnerable to replacement, but the development of new technology meanwhile creates new jobs and increases productivity, generating new sectors and new tasks that more than make up for the lost jobs. I was involved in the installation of automatic paper testing equipment at a paper mill many years ago, and some paper testers were about to lose their jobs. There was work created, however, for more skilled employees, including instrumentation technicians (to calibrate and maintain the equipment) and process engineers (to make use of the data which were now more reliable and frequent and could be used to increase product quality and output using predictive analytical tools).

The forest products industry has responded to the human resource crisis by taking several approaches. Besides trying to improve productivity through tools such as automation, individual companies have increased their recruiting efforts. Innovative changes are being explored such as larger trailers to carry wood chips or ship them by rail. Associations are helping to attract workers, especially those at the stage of choosing a career path, by promoting the benefits of working in the industry (examples are “Work Wild” by the Alberta Forest Products Association and “The Greenest Work Force” by the Forest Products Association of Canada). Working in small forest-based communities brings benefits such as quick commute times, low-cost, spacious housing, and close-knit communities.

What about self-driving trucks? Can this solve the problem of not enough truck drivers? Probably not for a long time, if at all. The current state-of-the-art technology still requires a driver to sit at the wheel and pay attention to the road. At the next level, which has still not achieved regulatory approval, big trucks could be unattended on the highway, but have driver pilots who jump in and out at each end of the journey. It’s questionable whether self-driving trucks can be programmed to drive in snowy conditions or on forestry roads. Research is being carried out in this area, however. Moving loads repetitively over a short distance is likely feasible in the short term. Despite Hollywood-stoked fears of robots taking over the world, the more likely scenario is that they take over the boring jobs and leave us the interesting and challenging ones!


Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.


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