Aug 28, 2023 - Business

Iowa needs more skilled workers to help in robotics, manufacturing

Illustration of a giant manufacturing robot embedded in a cornfield.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Iowa is one of the top five states using robots in manufacturing — and local experts say they expect their use to keep growing.

Why it matters: Manufacturing is the state's largest employer, creating 7,600 jobs in 2022 with an annual salary averaging around $70,000.

  • But those jobs will require a higher education and skill level than in the past, Michael O'Donnell, director of Iowa State's Center for Industrial Research and Service, tells Axios.
  • In anticipation, state officials set a goal nearly a decade ago to get 70% of Iowa's workforce some kind of credential or postsecondary education by 2025.
  • As of 2020, 46% of Iowans have at least an associate's degree, according to Iowa College Aid. College enrollment has also plunged since the pandemic.

Driving the local robot use: 60% of Iowa's manufacturing focuses on food production and machinery, which have historically used high amounts of automation for repetitive motions.

  • Prominent manufacturing companies include Hormel, Nestle, Tyson and John Deere.

State of play: Today's robots are unlike the big pieces of machinery from the '80s — most of them are now smaller and work more collaboratively with people, O'Donnell says.

  • In the past, a person may have loaded and unloaded one machine tool. Now, a robot can load and unload six machine tools at the same time, so the employee can focus more on programming and maintenance, he says.

Zoom in: Accumold, an Ankeny manufacturer of micro-electronics and medical parts, has high school and college programs to train students and gain more skilled workers by paying their tuition and offering salaries around $18-20 an hour.

  • They currently have a dozen open positions on their staff of 315 people, Acccumold's Grace Swanson tells Axios.

Between the lines: It's unknown how many jobs robots will eliminate in the near future, but O'Donnell says many lower-paying, repetitive positions have already been outsourced to other countries starting in the early 2000s.

  • Currently, there's a shortage of people to replace the baby boomer generation that's retiring from manufacturing, O'Donnell says.

Reality check: A 2020 World Economic Forum report predicted robotics and automation would displace 85 million jobs globally in the next five years, according to Fast Company.

  • But it also predicted the technologies would create 97 million new jobs requiring more skills and education — potentially leaving rural areas behind as "brain drain" occurs.

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