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Staying on top of the robots

June 08,2018
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Lee Jong-wha
*The author, a former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, is a professor of economics at Korea University.

South Korea topped the list for concentration of industrial robots in the manufacturing industry in 2016, with 631 multipurpose robots for every 10,000 workers. This far outpaced the worldwide average concentration of working robots, which was just 69. As the role of robotics and artificial intelligence in our everyday lives grows, so does concern about the future job opportunities for human workers.

Recent advances in computing and IT and the acceleration of automation are believed to contribute to rises in unemployment. Technological advances can destroy and eliminate traditional jobs while creating new ones at the same time. The history of mankind shows technological progress has overall added — not reduced — jobs for workers. Horse-drawn carriages and jobs related to them went extinct after motor vehicles dominated the roads. But automobiles have ultimately generated millions of factory jobs as well as in the fields of construction and tourism.

The invasion of technology will be of a different level when robots and AI become commonplace. Over the next 15 years, 47 percent of jobs in the United States and 15 percent across the world are projected to be replaced by machines. One study showed that jobs did indeed decrease due to the increased use of robots. But another study citing materials from Japan showed robotic deployment has increased productivity as well as hiring and wages. And many other studies point to increases in jobs as a result of automation.

Growth led by innovation creates new industries and jobs. An economy grows on increases in income that spur consumption, investment and hiring. Employment is near perfect in the United States, with the unemployment rate at 3.8 percent in May, the lowest in 18 years. Jobs are also abundant in Japan, with the employment rate of college graduates hitting 98 percent.

Employment conditions in Korea, however, are only worsening. A job increase in April against a year-ago period was the lowest since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The education services lost 106,000 jobs; the wholesales, retail, lodging and restaurant category lost 88,000 jobs, the manufacturing sector 68,000 and the real estate category 30,000. In the meantime, increases in public-sector administration, health and social welfare services helped to sustain overall job data.

The presidential senior secretary on jobs claimed that hiring has decreased due to the thinning working population and higher employment in the year-ago period. But structural factors could be the bigger cause, as the employment rate in the overall working population as well as in the 15-24 and 60-64 age groups all decreased and the number of employed in the manufacturing sector also fell in the first half of last year.

Jobs cannot increase when new industries are not created and productivity remains low. The government has tried to boost jobs by increasing public-sector hiring and funding ailing industries and financially strapped employers. But they are all makeshift measures. To sustain growth in jobs, companies must invest and new technologies and industries must sprout. Productivity also should improve to encourage the corporate sector to increase hiring and wages.

It is important that workers benefit from innovative growth. Machines will quickly replace human labor. They are already better at routine and repetitive work, both in labor and brain work. The inequalities in the labor market and wages could widen due to the gap in the people capable or incapable of dealing with new technologies like robotics.

Education on innovations is, therefore, crucial in the age when machines and humans coexist. Workers must be able to work along with robots and command them. Students should focus their learning on problem-solving, logical or critical thinking, cognitive skills, teamwork, communication and social skills — the areas where humans still excel over machines.

Workers must be trained to be up-to-date on new technologies. The government, companies and schools must join forces to train workers so that they can find new work in new fields. The government’s move to simply extend employees’ retirement age will only lessen jobs for the young. Lifetime education to support growth in innovations and labor productivity is needed. The government must set direction in policies to generate quality jobs.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 7, Page 31