500x_9782-workers-are-seen-inside-a-foxconn-factory-in-the-township-ofOn 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.

He discusses a few on-line learning startups such as Rypple and WorkDay that might offer promise in this area.

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.


  1. Just because a forecast was premature doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. I think we have a real issue in dealing with unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and possibly with skilled workers as well. Doesn’t the message of high corporate profits and near-zero job growth imply that? I said issue rather than problem because huge productivity should be able to solve problems, if only we can resolve to do so.

    Rob Preece

  2. Regrettably as long as we still have people who’s political dogma drowns out any economic education that is thrown their way, we will still have a major problem.
    I feel sorry for the thousands of low skill workers in FoxConn who have been earning some of the highest salaries for low skilled work in their countries. The politically correct left wingers have ‘decided’ that they don’t approve of such advances in their countries because it is implemented by the nasty multinationals. Now robots will destroy their jobs and they will be back on the poverty line .. while the PC puffs move on to some other juicy target.
    High corporate profits bring millions of jobs to the US and all across the developed world. Unfortunately the only thing that could be described as high in recent years have been corporate losses. Ginormous losses.

  3. The lesson I took from this piece is that we not only need to re-train many of the current population but also preempt a worsening of this issue by changing the focus of our primary, secondary and tertiary educational systems away from those activities likely to be rendered obsolete by technology. Moreover, these reformed or replaced systems will then need to be accessible to a much larger segment of the population than now. With the world population exceeding seven billion, this will be a huge challenge. Even then, what will that many highly educated persons do? Will there be enough of that kind of high level work?

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