Is the Midwest Winning the Wrong Race to Automate?

Robots are venturing into the workplace faster than ever. With their quite-literal superhuman efficiency, they’ve revolutionized industry and boosted the economy. But what about the people that built and defined industry as we once knew it? Are robots displacing the nation’s blue-collar workers? The Midwest, land of 44% of the nation’s robots, provides some insight. Angelina Zhou was a participant in Midstory's 2022 High School ThinkLab program. Cover graphic by Angelina Zhou for Midstory.

Imagine a robot. You’re probably envisioning a futuristic, humanoid figure in a high-tech lab or a home designed for 2050. But you’re actually most likely to see a robot somewhere in the forgotten manufacturing towns of the Midwest, being supervised and utilized by everyday, blue-collar workers in car factories or food processing plants.

Although the U.S. has seen an increase in robot intensity (number of robots per 1,000 workers) nationwide, robots are most concentrated and experiencing the fastest growth in the Midwest, the backbone of the manufacturing sector. The Midwest is home to 44% of the nation’s robots — which doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that more than half of the nation’s robots are associated with the auto industry.

At its simplest, a robot is an automated machine designed to perform human tasks faster and with more precision. In manufacturing, the most common type of robot resembles a human arm, with the equivalent of a shoulder, an elbow and a wrist. Robots can work four to five times faster than humans, and while their efficiency has contributed to GDP growth and labor productivity, an increase in robots may lead to a few unintended consequences: the Midwest is experiencing “sizeably decreased employment” and “sizeably decreased wages” according to a Century Foundation report by William R. Rodgers III and Richard Freeman.

The same report also estimated that, in Midwest manufacturing industries, an increase of one robot per thousand workers would decrease the employment rate by 3.5%. Beyond just contributing to job loss, automation in the Midwest is “associated with a 4.0 to 5.0% decline in wages.” 

Loss of jobs has profound social and cultural consequences, as can be observed in Youngstown, Ohio. During World War II, Mahoning Valley — where Youngstown is located — manufactured 10% of the nation’s steel; after the war, demand for steel fell dramatically — and, with it, Youngstown. 

On September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, the largest locally owned steel company in the United States, announced its shutdown. The Atlantic reported that “[w]ithin five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages.” Depression, domestic violence and suicide rose; the local mental health center’s caseload tripled over the course of a decade. Four prisons were built in the mid-1990s. With no diversified economy, Youngstown could not provide new jobs and has lost over half of its population in the past 40 years. 

Mental health decline as related to job displacement — or the fear of it — isn’t unique to Youngstown.

“[Areas in the] United States with more people working alongside robots had a significant increase of 37.8 cases per 100,000 people in drug or alcohol related deaths,” the Insurance Journal reported

And these kinds of effects don’t fall on all populations equally. Reports show that automation may hit minority populations harder. According to a 2019 Brookings report, African American and Hispanic workers are overrepresented in more easily automated jobs. 

Minorities are overrepresented in the top three occupation categories with the most easily outdated skills: food services, production work and office support.

Automation potential refers to how susceptible a task or job is to being replaced with technology.

According to the same Brookings report, “Hispanic and [B]lack workers … face average current-task automation potentials of 47% and 44% for their jobs, figures well above those likely for their white (40%) and Asian (39%) counterparts.”

The social and economic impact on these populations in the Midwest and beyond provide unfortunate but valuable lessons for what the future may be like for other regions as automation becomes increasingly integrated into industrial practices.

“The experiences of young Midwestern minority and women workers, as well as employers and their communities can help other parts of the country prepare for and minimize the economic, social, and cultural adjustment costs associated with the introduction and diffusion of robots,” Rodgers and Freeman wrote.

Solutions to automation-related job displacement may be in training. One is developing less easily automated skills and integrating these into higher education.

“Some skills will become outdated and that will require new skills to be learned,” Dr. Dave Black, Interim Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Toledo, said. “If the goal is to reduce income inequality and poverty the way to do that is by giving those individuals or encouraging those individuals to gain the skills of the future.”

And moving on from the old can encourage the development of new job opportunities that favor new skills. 

“If you look at the history of the United States, new technologies have always led to job losses in some areas, but job increases in others and automation will certainly do that. It will give people the incentive to acquire different skills and acquire the skills needed to work in the coming years,” Black said.

While those with less education tend to have jobs that compete with robots, those with higher levels of education tend to have jobs that complement the rise of robots. 

“Those with at least some postsecondary education, especially with bachelor (BA) degrees or higher, tend to complement the new technologies in a variety of ways — as engineers or technicians, or those who market and sell the new products, or those providing the health care that we demand with our higher incomes, or whose creativity in music or writing can now be enjoyed by vastly greater audiences. The employment rates and earnings of these complementary workers rise as a result of automation,” Harry J. Holzer, who previously served as the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, wrote for the Brookings Institution in 2018.

As we walk into an increasingly automated future, the exact consequences of automation remain unclear.

“The further out into the future you go, the worse any prediction will become,” Black said. 

In the meantime, however, we can turn to the lessons from the Midwest, including a look at automation’s contribution to job loss and wage reductions. We can focus our attention on the manufacturing industry, where the most number of robots are being employed, and on easily automated occupation categories such as food services and production work. 

Arguably most importantly, while he acknowledges that higher education in its current state isn’t always a feasible path for all, Black said we can work on promoting higher education attainment to help provide the next generation with updated skills. The Midwest currently has an 89.8% high school completion rate, and 37.9% of its residents have at least a college degree. 

And in many of the places where automation will likely hit hardest, education rates are below average. Ohio is home to five of the top 50 cities across the U.S. for automation potential — Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo — and four out of those five cities are at or below the national average for educational attainment. Toledo tops the list for automation potential but ranks last among these Ohio cities in higher education.

“The more education [we] have, the better suited [we] will be for the future. And for those individuals that do not retool … and get the skills of the future, certainly, they will be left behind. And that’s an unfortunate situation,” Black said. 

And so it’s not just individuals that must adapt, but institutions.

“That's why universities and colleges need to update their curriculum often, so that they are providing students with the skills needed for the future,” he said.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here