On ReadWriteWeb, Marshall Kirkpatrick has a piece on the rise of robotic manufacturing and what it might mean for online educational tools. It cites iPhone/iPad manufacturer FoxConn’s plan to improve working conditions by building 1 million new robot workers over the next 3 to 5 years, increasing the number it currently has by 100 times (that’s 10,000 percent). Human workers, FoxConn says, “will move up the value chain.” (Apparently hiring more “mature” workers didn’t work out.)
The article discusses what this means in terms of the one million unskilled laborers FoxConn currently employs, and unskilled labor versus automation. A survey this year found that “53% of US manufacturing firms believe that less than 50% of their human workers have the skills and work ethic required to do high performance work.” In order to “move up the value chain,” unskilled workers will need to be retrained in those skills. Kirkpatrick writes:
It may soon come to the point, if it hasn’t already, where the supply of and demand for skilled labor become imbalanced enough that the market value of skill building shoots through the roof.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just too foggy to understand the premise he’s expressing here, but it seems to me that the question of what to do with unskilled laborers when their jobs are taken by machines has been asked again and again ever since the invention of the cotton gin. I remember reading a satirical mid-20th-century science fiction story (I wish I could remember the title and author) in which the rise of robotic manufacturing had led to such a surplus in consumer goods that "poor" people were forced to live in huge mansions while "rich" people were able to simplify down to one- or two-room houses. What’s changed?
Certainly there are a lot of tools now to help educate people—not just those startups, but also free general-purpose tools like Khan Academy. Will unskilled laborers be able to use those kinds of tools to become skilled enough to “move up the value chain”? Will employers really be interested in helping them do that rather than just looking for new workers who already have those skills? It should be interesting to find out.