Why aren’t wages moving in lockstep with the improved employment picture?

If you’ve taken a look at September’s U.S. unemployment figure – 3.5% — you’re seeing the lowest level of unemployment in over 50 years. And for particular subgroups of the population, they’re enjoying their lowest employment percentages ever — at least since records have been kept.

It’s definitely something to cheer about. But at the same time, it’s become increasingly evident that wage growth isn’t happening in tandem with lower unemployment.  And that includes industrial wages as well.

In fact, September results show the first dip in wages – albeit slight – in the past two years.

What gives?

According to Zheng Liu and Sylvain Leduc, two economics researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the cause of stagnating wages in an otherwise robust economy can be laid at the doorstep of automation.

According to Liu and Leduc, as certain tasks move more toward automation, employees are losing bargaining power within their organizations. When people fear that they could lose their jobs to a robot or a machine, there’s a hesitation to ask for higher wages as that might hasten the eventuality.

The net result is a widening gap between productivity and pay.

But does this situation apply across all of industry? Perhaps not. Last year, manufacturing expert and Forbes magazine contributing writer Jim Vinoski noted that “huge swaths of industry remain decidedly low-tech and heavily manual.”

The reason? Complexity, volume and margins are often barriers to the implementation of automation in many applications.  Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean that there’s a compelling economic argument to do so – particularly if the production volumes aren’t in the league of “mass manufacturing.”

Jobs in engineering and R&D are even less likely to become automated. After all, probably the single most important attribute of employees in these positions is the ability to “think outside the box” – something artificial intelligence hasn’t come anywhere close to replicating (at least not yet).

What are your thoughts about automation and how it will affect employment and wage growth? Please share your perspectives with other readers.

Just ducky: Engineers develop robots to replace ducks in cleaning and patrolling rice paddy fields.

Aigamo ducks in a rice paddy.

It’s a common theme that we hear: Artificial intelligence and robotics are coming for many of the jobs that have traditionally been performed by humans.

But what about the fate of animals?

That prospect was raised recently by David Mantey, a writer for Thomas Publishing, in an article about what’s happening in rice paddy fields.  And it involves ducks.

More specifically, aigamo ducks, which are a cross between mallards and domestic fowl. There is a farming method, originating in Japan, that employs these creatures to clear and keep unwanted plants and parasites out of rice paddy fields.

Essentially, it’s an environmentally-friendly practice in which the ducks keep the paddies clear without the need for pesticides. As an ancillary benefit, the ducks’ own waste acts as fertilizer for the rice plants.

The centuries-old practice was revived in Japan the mid-1980s, and has since become a popular natural rice farming method beyond that country, used in places like China, Iran and France.

Broadly speaking, approximately 15 ducks can keep more than a 10,000 sq. ft. area clear of weeds and insects, while also enriching the water with oxygen via stirring up the soil beneath.

It seems like a neat and tidy solution all-around — and one that works based on decades of experience with the farming practice. But as it turns out, it’s something that a robot can accomplish, too (well, maybe not the duck waste bit) — with certain improvements on the original tradition.

A rice paddy robot doing its thing.

While ducks can be “trained” to patrol specific areas of a rice paddy, it isn’t a foolproof proposition. As for the robotic version (which looks more like a white, floating ROOMBA® than it does a duck), it utilizes wi-fi and GPS technology to stir up the soil and keep the bugs at bay.

Reportedly, the robot is more accurate and more consistent in its execution compared to the aigamo ducks.

At the moment, the rice paddy robot is in an experimental phase with beta prototypes patrolling paddies in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan — and it’s too soon to know if or when the robot will be deemed ready for commercialization.

But the development goes to show that robots are spreading into some very surprising corners.  Indeed, it seems that robotics technology knows no bounds.