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Advanced Manufacturing

Good or bad, technology changes county workplaces

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Rico Traversa has worked at VSS for 4 1/2 years.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Rico Traversa has worked at VSS for 4 1/2 years.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>VSS owner Steve Capshaw uses CNC, computer numerical control, machines in his Greenfield shop to machine metal parts for his customers.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    VSS owner Steve Capshaw uses CNC, computer numerical control, machines in his Greenfield shop to machine metal parts for his customers.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>VSS owner Steve Capshaw uses CNC, computer numerical control, machines in his Greenfield shop to machine metal parts for his customers.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    VSS owner Steve Capshaw uses CNC, computer numerical control, machines in his Greenfield shop to machine metal parts for his customers.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Rico Traversa has worked at VSS for 4 1/2 years.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>VSS owner Steve Capshaw uses CNC, computer numerical control, machines in his Greenfield shop to machine metal parts for his customers.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>VSS owner Steve Capshaw uses CNC, computer numerical control, machines in his Greenfield shop to machine metal parts for his customers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a series on the effect on middle-class jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, and the role of technology.

If technology is hurting employment in Franklin County, that’s news to Valley Steel Stamp President Steven Capshaw, who’s grown his precision machine shop from two workers to 40 over the past 40 years, and sees further growth ahead.

It’s also not clear to area industry observers just how much of the loss of jobs during the recession — or over the past decade or more — are the result of technology versus jobs moving elsewhere.

And the range of opinions on whether the crush of technology in workplaces of all kinds is a good or bad thing varies tremendously, depending on whom you ask.

Capshaw, for example, whose business added 10 workers in the past two years, figures he could add five more if he could find people suitably trained, and he starts entry-level skilled workers right out of high school at $40,000 to $50,000 with non-contributory health insurance and other good benefits, as representing a high-tech sector that can provide the region with “its greatest momentum for moving forward.”

“In Franklin County, advanced manufacturing has a tremendous potential for lots of middle-class jobs in the coming years and decades,” says Capshaw, pointing at U.S. Department of Labor prediction of a need for 3 million to 5 million jobs over the next five years and a Commonwealth Corp. report showing 100,000 workers will be needed in the next three years in Massachusetts alone.

He predicts that if worker training were available, the sector of the Franklin County economy that’s employed in manufacturing could grow by 17 percent over the next five years.

“The number of opportunities is spectacular,” says Capshaw, whose business does contract machining for 400 to 500 customers, including aerospace and firearms manufacturers. He also makes steel-marking tools for nearly 600 customers. “A robot replaces jobs that you already don’t want. There’s nothing that replaces the mind.”

The greatest problem, he says, is that the mindset in this area is that manufacturing jobs are “dirty, dingy, mind-numbing work.” The reality is that those jobs are being done either by robots or by workers overseas.

“The cost of automation has plummeted over the last 10 years, so the ‘dumb-labor’ component in manufacturing has been removed,” he says. The skills that Valley Steel Stamp pays its seasoned skilled workers $80,000 and more a year involve programming robots and setting up and programming computerized coordinate-measuring equipment to automatically measure parts.

“Technology is exploding at a pace I’ve never seen before,” Capshaw says. “When we go to shows with new technologies, I’m stunned by the speed of change. That’s putting pressure on companies to hire more employees with greater skills and pay them more.”

Fewer jobs

That kind of uptick in “advanced manufacturing” jobs is also being seen at other Franklin County manufacturers and machining firms, where drudgery has been handed off to robots, or sent overseas to be done where labor costs are much lower, according to Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin-Hampshire Regional Employment Board.

The companies that are thriving do have a lot more automation and advanced technology they’re using that require fewer people to run them, she said. But the jobs for the people associated with them are better than many of those (older) jobs were.

The bitter pill is that the number of jobs has declined, even as the population has increased.

“I could be accused of sugar-coating it if I thought that the new jobs technology would create would be equal in number to the ones that are lost,” Crosby says. “We have thriving businesses, and in those, better jobs that are less monotonous and tedious, that require of the person to use all their skills and contribute more as part of a team, rather than be a cog in the wheel. But fewer? I couldn’t deny that.”

U.S. Census figures show less than 91 percent of the county’s labor force was actually employed in 2010, a lower level than was reflected in either the 2000 or the 1990 Census.

“There are good jobs that are harder to get,” Crosby said. “But once you get them and really apply yourself, and come ready to keep your skills updated, beefing up basic skills to acquire more training, then you can keep with it. Some people will be able to keep up with that change of pace.

All sectors

Crosby’s own office — like others everywhere — has also been changed radically by new technologies.

Instead of secretaries and file clerks, each with limited skills and tasks, Crosby has an administrative assistant at the employment board, whose tasks now include updating the website. Similarly, Crosby says, many offices now have one or more IT workers who handle information technology, but the kind of computer phobia that she saw in some job applicants a decade ago has disappeared.

Regardless of whether you’re in an office, a health-care job, or manufacturing, it seems, “because technology is changing all the time, workers have to be able to adapt to new machines, to changes and re-learning skills.”

At the Greenfield Career Center, where Crosby’s office is based, “People come through the doors competing against each other for what can sometimes seem like a dwindling pool of jobs,” she says. “But we’re still seeing quite an array of opportunity, from entry-level to specialized CNC (computer numerical control) machinists, maintenance mechanics, web programmers, IT kinds of jobs, software technicians.”

Even people who have been laid off will have to be able to go online to register for unemployment benefits by the end of the year, because of budget cuts that will eliminate people being able to see a live person about their claim.

Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura, like Crosby, emphasizes that for the ever-changing workplace, it’s critical that students get skills that serve them for the long-run and are transferable: good communication skills, critical thinking abilities, the ability to be creative and the basic ability to learn and continue learning.

“Technology helps us do our jobs better, no matter the field, but the human experience bringing creativity, critical thinking and compassion to that experience is uniquely human,” Pura said, pointing especially to fields like nursing. “It’s important for us to appreciate and understand that dynamic. Technology works well when it comes to linear, repetition and efficiency. But when comes to creativity, and compassion, those are the skills that serve our students best.”

Pura emphasized, “It’s not a question whether we use technology or not. It’s how do we integrate it most humanely, and for betterment of the human experience?”

For example, Pura says he makes a conscious choice to avoid automatic checkout lines at Stop & Shop and CVS or automatic check-in lines at the airport in the same way he makes a purposeful decision to shop at local farmstands and businesses.

“I’d much rather stand in line and wait for a human being,” Pura said. “In my mind, I’m making an economic statement and a social statement. I talk to those people. The way in which we’re choosing to live our lives: that’s part of that scenario as well.”

Choices and limits

Choice is a bigger part of job loss, depending on who you talk to — whether it’s consumers choosing lesser quality goods that are made cheaply overseas, manufacturers choosing to move factories to countries where environmental regulations are more lax or business owners choosing to employ a technological innovation as a way to cut costs.

“It’s true, the level of technology is astronomical,” said Tom Juravich, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst sociologist who specializes in labor and workplace issues. “But we have to consider it within the larger political economy of what’s happening. It’s not just a technological imperative; someone has to make the decision to no longer have that assistant. Technology enabled that decision, this drive toward the bottom line.”

Technology, simply put, is letting us rethink — and remake — how we do everything. And the implications are anything but simple.

“One of the crises we’re facing in the U.S. economy is that we don’t have enough jobs for people up and down (the economic ladder), particularly in the lower and middle part of the occupational structure, to earn enough money to buy stuff … not only that we’re producing, but that we’re importing. This is the real dilemma. What’s the new focus of an economy where people are going to be employed? Without (plenty of) decent jobs, we can’t have the kind of purchasing power that then reverberates in our community.”

Robert Nakosteen, a professor in UMass’s Isenberg School of Management, agrees this is a largely unrecognized issue in society, and one that’s bound to intensify as it can no longer be ignored.

“If you’re a company trying to figure out how to make your operations more efficient, it makes complete sense to try to automate,” said Nakosteen, who studies economic trends around Massachusetts. (It’s a state, he notes, with an especially strong economic sector of IT companies, system operators and software engineers to help businesses automate and apply advanced technology.)

Yet there are limits — for now.

In Boston, with its heavy concentration of hospitals, there had been a buzz about outsourcing the reading of X-rays to India, for example, Nakosteen said. In reality, because of concerns about supervision and liability, a researcher at MIT found that there has been only one case of it actually happening.

But he added, “The opportunities to computerize these jobs are growing all the time, and it does seem limitless. But I think it’s happening a little less than pop culture suggests. Maybe a slower, more guarded process than is thought. It’s only going to continue. And we’re about to see advances in robots and what they’re able to do. I’d suggest that when they’re perfected, you’re going to see a lot more jobs being displaced.”

When that comes to pass, Nakosteen predicts, “that will raise some real urgent issues like job security, income distribution and so on.”

Although he sees that future as almost inevitable, what he hasn’t seen is much discussion of the economic, social and political implications of where we’re headed.

“It’s one of these things where individual actions that make sense lead to global outcomes that are perverse: without a strong middle class, consumption — which accounts for like 70 percent of gross domestic product — will come to a halt. There’s nobody to buy these products.”

Although he sees economists’ “conversations on the blogosphere” on the topic, Nakosteen says he’s unaware of any discussion among policy makers.

“The magnitude of the problem is so large, people don’t want to attack it,” he said. “What we don’t see at the policy level is even an admission that this kind of process can really transfer income from workers to the owners of capital. There’s been an enormous shift going on in this economy over the last 15 years,” with investments going into robotics and computers rather than into paying workers.

One Smith College economics professor, at least, believes that computers and robots will eventually take over all work. And he believes that’s a good thing.

James Miller, who teaches a seminar in “the economics of future technology,” is the author of “Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer and More Dangerous World.”

“I think eventually we’ll probably have machines do everything, although probably not for 30 years or more at least,” said Miller. “That of course is really good, if the machines are nice to us. They do the work and we get the benefits. Working is a bad thing. We work to get consumption, but if we can break that cycle, that’s just fantastic.”

Asked how that works economically, Miller harkened back 500 years, adding, “The landed aristocracy did it all the time. Medieval royalty consumed plenty without having to work. They had serfs. Our serfs are robots. This will get rid of a bunch of jobs. That’s where economic growth comes from is job destruction.”

It’s the owners of the robots, Miller admitted, who will do very well in that system.

“By the end of the century, if we survive and civilization keeps going, we’ll have intelligences above us as we are from ants,” said Miller. “If the machines treat us well, it’s utopia; if they treat us the way we treat lesser species, they’ll just take our stuff and leave us for dead.”

Miller’s utopia with expanded disparity of wealth and decimation of the middle class, is what Nakosteen sees as “one of most urgent issues this whole thing raises. From my point of view, it’s going to be urgently interesting to see how this transpires. Nobody knows exactly what kind of policies you want to initiate. You don’t want to throw shoes into the machines to get them to stop working. On the other hand, you don’t want to see our middle class shrink further, where jobs become less well paid and work become less secure. I don’t know what the answer is.”

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