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Inside a warehouse down a dirt road in southwest Cedar Rapids, employees turn out custom-made hydraulic manifolds — sparkling metallic boxes crafted to regulate the flow of pressurized oil to devices like hydraulic motors or cylinders.

Some M & W Manufacturing employees manage product design, squatting behind computers using digital software. Others don protective eyewear at workbenches, running production machines or pulling out finished products. Some do the work of two or three. Others manage with the help of robots, of sorts.

“It’s all we’ve been buying the last five years — is automation,” M & W Plant Manager Joe Chiaramonte said about his company’s increasing turn to technology.

“We don’t have a choice because we can’t get the help,” he said. “We have to buy faster equipment to make our parts. We have guys running two to three machines.”

Being part of a national surge in the use of automation for performing job tasks previously done by humans is “absolutely” a help to his company, Chiaramonte said — in that it both fills the job gaps and creates new, higher-skill work.

“We have 22 machines, and there is a lot of work after the machines,” he said. “The more stuff we can get off the machines, the more stuff we have for people to do after the machines.”

M & W Manufacturing presents one side of the response to a growing body of projections — including a new report from the Brookings Institution — that automation and artificial intelligence technologies are destined to alter the country’s worker landscape, across all races and genders, and in a wide swath of occupations.

“Automation will take place everywhere, but its inroads will be felt differently across places, varying with local industry, task and skill mix,” according to the Brookings report, published in January. “Overall, smaller, more rural communities seem significantly more exposed to the automation of current-take content than larger ones.”

That means the Heartland, according to the report. And that’s Iowa.

The Hawkeye State ranks fourth from the top on the Brookings list of “average automation potential” — meaning it has one of the nation’s highest rates of workplace roles susceptible to being overtaken by automation or artificial intelligence technology.

Nearly 28 percent of Iowa’s worker tasks are at high risk of being replaced by automation, the study found. The reason for Iowa’s risk has to do with the types of industry the state supports — like production, food service, transportation and agriculture.

But while the initial reaction to such premonitions for years has been fear of lost jobs, mass layoffs and swelling unemployment, the Brookings study reveals the implications can be mixed — or even good — depending on the response to the outlook.

“Educational attainment” the study found, ”will prove decisive in shaping how local labor markets may be affected by AI-age technological developments.”

‘We need to be lifelong learners’

Iowa in 2015 got a line of sight to the looming workforce changes when the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projected 68 percent of jobs in Iowa will require some degree of education or training beyond high school by 2025.

That precipitated a governor’s call to get 70 percent of the workforce the necessary education or training by that time — up from just 58 percent. And it produced the Future Ready Iowa initiative focused on mapping out a plan to meet the demand by closing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps; encouraging more traditional and adult learners to pursue postsecondary degrees; and aligning degrees and certificates with workforce needs.

Those initiatives mesh with recommendations made in the new Brookings study, which advocates a “constant learning mindset.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, while last week touring M & W Manufacturing, said her administration is doing just that.

The Republican governor has asked the Iowa Legislature this session to approve $20 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $12 million the following year for Future Ready Iowa initiatives.

“We need to be lifelong learners and we need to be adaptable because, with technology and innovation, we’re going to continue to see our workforce change,” Reynolds told The Gazette. “I think that’s really important — that our young kids know that as they’re going through school. Be prepared to have a good foundation and learn the basics, but be able to adapt to a changing environment.”

If Iowans can respond to the challenge, Reynolds said, the shift toward artificial intelligence and task automation can benefit employers and employees.

“Automation is allowing them to do more things with the same amount of people,” she said. “And they are able then to work with their existing employees and help them skill up and move them into more technical and higher paying jobs.”

‘They don’t have the personal capital’

The Brookings report concludes that routine and predictable physical and cognitive tasks “will be the most vulnerable to automation.”

The most threatened jobs — those with more than 70 percent of their tasks potentially automatable with current technology — include office administration, production, transportation and food preparation.

Although some positions labeled as more secure include low-paying work in personal care or domestic service, the average automation potential of occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree is just 24 percent — well below the 55 percent exposure to jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.

“Given this, better-educated, higher-paid earners, for the most part, will continue to face lower automation threats,” according to the report.

Changes in job skills and requirements could affect Iowa’s workers differently, as not everyone finds it easy to go back to school — or go to school in the first place.

David Swenson, an Iowa State University economics scientist, said automation often affects jobs held by lower-educated men or minorities “who might have difficulty tapping into better-educated jobs or moving into education systems or training systems that take them to the next step in life.”

The need to do so now represents a shift from years past, when Midwesterners were able to earn decent money with a high-school degree.

“Twenty years down the road, they don’t have the personal capital that allows them to take the risk and enter into an educational system,” he said.

At the same time, Swenson said he thinks the impact of automation on Iowa might be overstated in recent predictions — especially in the agriculture sector, where Iowa already is ahead of the technology curve.

“To say that Iowa agriculture is at risk of automation is almost funny because we are the epitome of automated ag,” Swenson said. “Our ag sector isn’t really as at-risk of automation as might be the national average.”

Iowa businesses need 'more of everybody'

Whether Iowa jobs are at risk from the growth of automation and use of artificial intelligence is less urgent than the need to get the work done, according to ISU economics professor Peter Orazem.

“If you look at the labor force, Iowa’s unemployment rate is 2 percent,” Orazem said. “It’s clear we don’t have enough workers.”

Iowa’s abundance of unfilled jobs could be propelling automation — or even accelerating it.

“You have to come up with ways of increasing productivity of the workforce you have, and one of the most common ways it to marry labor with capital,” Orazem said. “That’s human capital in the worker and knowledge of how to use these information technologies effectively.”

He said Iowa right now needs more of everybody — both workers with the skills to handle new technologies, and those without them.

“If you can’t find more of everybody, the people you are going to decide will go away first are going to be ones you can replace with some other input — some automatable action,” Orazem said.

Swenson similarly downplayed concern over Iowa jobs being lost to robots and dialed down worries over the need for more education to accommodate technological advances.

Iowa, he said, is actually great at educating its residents — noting it boasts the highest high school graduation rate in the country and is in the top tier for college graduation within six years.

“We are really, really good at educating Iowans,” Swenson said. “We are not an uneducated state.”

The problem, he said, is Iowa can’t employ all the talent it produces.

“It has to go somewhere else,” Swenson said. “But it’s not that we’ve made some mistake and forgotten to educate our young people. It’s just that our economy can’t absorb them all.”

Thus the more automation helps Iowa’s economy develop jobs that require more skills, the better the state will be positioned to keep some of those Iowa-educated workers and attract others, he said.

“We’ll be more competitive and able to attract more people to our state,” Swenson said.

After touring several manufacturing companies last week in Eastern Iowa, Reynolds reached a similar conclusion — that businesses need workers who have the right mix of skills.

“Right now, the biggest barrier to our economic growth is people,” she said. “I’ve been in three business visits today already and at every stop business is growing. They’ve seen great growth over the past five years. And they project extended growth. But they need people.”

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