Wanted: Skilled workers to train the robots that will eventually replace us

John Cook

You'd think in this economy anyone looking to hire a worker would have no trouble finding qualified applicants. But you'd be wrong.

The New York Times reports on a bitter little irony of the Third Recession: Now that manufacturers have laid off millions of unskilled workers and replaced them with robots, they can't find enough skilled workers to operate the robots. They'll probably have to invent a robot to do that.

The Times' Motoko Rich says factory owners have been slowly but steadily adding new jobs after the massive layoffs of the last three years. But they're complaining about a lack of skilled, educated applicants to take on higher-tech jobs now that they've retooled processes to cut out all those low-wage workers:

As unlikely as it would seem against this backdrop, manufacturers who want to expand find that hiring is not always easy. During the recession, domestic manufacturers appear to have accelerated the long-term move toward greater automation, laying off more of their lowest-skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper labor abroad.

Now they are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker.

A 2009 National Association of Manufacturers survey, the story says, found that nearly a third of industrial firms report "moderate to serious” shortages of skilled workers, despite an unemployment rate that has hovered above 9 percent since May of last year.

The imbalance of available jobs for qualified applicants is just another indication that, the recession is mainly hurting poor and middle class workers. According to new job numbers released today [pdf], the unemployment rate for those who didn't graduate from high school is 14 percent, compared with 4.4 percent for college graduates. Likewise, the unemployment rate for "management, professional, and related occupations" stands at 4.9 percent. The brunt of the economic downturn hit those unskilled workers least equipped to withstand it, and it now looks increasingly less likely that they will find new jobs as the economy turns around, without substantial retraining and education.