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Panelists discuss technology in the American workplace

October 24,2017 03:20

William Moner, an Assistant Professor of Communications at Elon University, left, and Roland Roberts, a professor in Mechatronics Engineering Technology at Alamance Community College, talk about the future of jobs during "Community Connections: ...

Monday
Oct 23, 2017 at 10:23 PM Oct 23, 2017 at 10:23 PM

By Kate Croxton / Times-News
How is technology creating a new American workplace and workforce?
Roland Roberts and Drew Simshaw, the two panelists for this installment of Community Connections, attempted to answer that question during an hour-long discussion hosted by Elon University and the Times-News on Monday, Oct. 23, at a Lakeside meeting room at Elon University.
Roberts is instructor of Mechatronics Engineering Technology at Alamance Community College, and Simshaw is a legal method and communication fellow at the Elon School of Law.
Here are some of their best answers to several questions throughout the evening:
 
What is mechatronics?
Roberts: Essentially, it is really a combination of a couple of existing technologies. It is a combination of electrical, mechanical and computer technology. If I had to sum it up in an easy word or a very short word, I would say “flexible automation.”
 
In terms of training students for these industries and some of the concerns … related to the manufacturing sector and some of these smarter devices, what is at stake for the students that you are seeing?
Roberts: One of the problems is that the type of works that we need are different. We need somebody who has the capability to understand how to use these machines, how to repair these machines. This level of skilled workers isn’t there anymore. There is huge opportunities coming up where we have local companies...they are looking for people to get into these jobs, get these skills, get this education...There are so many opportunities for students to come in...There is all kinds of help and assistance to get into that kind of training.
 
What responsibility, if any, do companies have to their workers who are being displaced? Is there incentive for companies to get involved with job training or things of that nature?
Simshaw: There should be. It is not enough to say we will retrain truck drivers. … Teaching employees how to be resilient when these kinds of innovations are coming and it is predictable that there is going to be this kind of disruption and the need to adapt to it, I think there absolutely should be at least a moral obligation of companies to anticipate this and start teaching how to learn while you are working.
 
How does the demographic makeup affect bias built into a machine?
Roberts: I don’t see a difference in the male versus female worker. To me, they are both the same. If you can do the job, it doesn’t really matter. Anybody can do that job if they are trained right. … It makes no difference. If you want to go to the race aspect, there is no difference there, either.
Simshaw: It is important that we have a representative group designing this because it is possible, once you get into the data, it is possible to make in biases of the creator, whether we know it or not, both from how we are designing the algorithms that are doing the deciding and the analyzing, and the data itself, where we are getting this data from.
 
How do we get this message to folks who are being fed a line that there is some single answer to the changes that are occurring? How do we get to them a realistic answer about what they may need to do to improve their lives?
Roberts: We have to better educate starting — I am going to say in the elementary schools — at that level to say, “Look, it isn’t school, then work and then retirement. It is initially training, working and learning, and then finally relaxing at the end.” … I don’t think age is a barrier to learning. … Education has to be flexible.
 
What from a national level could be done to help to bridge this gap between the people who are economically unstable to the point where they have to go back to school and they have to put things on the line?
Simshaw: This problem was actually identified back in the 1980s. … Automating and informating and recognize that once you go beyond just automating something, that does something, … and you get a result, once you have information from that automation and you start using that to fine-tune the automation and to learn about whatever process that you are doing in your industry, that information is really powerful. What an organization or an industry decides to do with that information I think will decide what path they go on. “Are we going down a path that is going to increase inequality or fight it?” A lot of that is going to be decided within our organizations.
 
Reporter Kate Croxton can be reached at kate.croxton@thetimesnews.com or 336-506-3078. Follow her on Twitter at @katecroxtonBTN.
 

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