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Preparing for change Unions forced to adapt as artificial intelligence, robotics become mainstream

Greg Lalevee, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 and chair of the Engineers Labor‑Employer Cooperative.-(AARON HOUSTON)

A company in upstate New York sells an iPad-controlled bricklaying robot — which the firm says can speed up bricklaying by a factor of five, and has already been used to build apartments in Chicago and a university building in Alabama — but a New Jersey bricklayer union official said he’s not worried about the high-tech device.

A company in upstate New York sells an iPad-controlled bricklaying robot — which the firm says can speed up bricklaying by a factor of five, and has already been used to build apartments in Chicago and a university building in Alabama — but a New Jersey bricklayer union official said he’s not worried about the high-tech device.

The SAM100 (semi-automated mason), designed by Construction Robotics in Victor, N.Y. “can create standard and non-standard patterns” and even add images, logos and words onto a wall,” according to the company.

Richard Tolson, director of the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Administrative District Council of New Jersey, sees these kinds of technological developments as just one more skill his members need to master.

“Robotics is increasingly becoming part of our industry,” he said. “It’s no longer a matter of pouring concrete and laying block. We recognize that our jobs are much more technical.”

A Construction Robotics spokesman agrees. “SAM works collaboratively with masons,” according to Zak Podkaminer. “It’s a tool that can take on heavy lifting and other tasks, but it won’t replace masons.”

Priot to engaging in the bricklaying process, SAM needs to be loaded with bricks and mortar, according to a Construction Robotics brochure. “When SAM is measuring, mortaring and placing bricks, the mason works alongside SAM striking (finishing) the joints and ensuring the wall quality.”

Will robots replace us?

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robots “will replace some workers as all past waves have done,” according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. But they also “will augment others as they raise economic productivity and per-capita income. Some technologies substitute for workers; others complement workers. This is why ITIF has estimated that, at most, only about 8 percent of jobs are at high risk of automation by 2024.”

Academic studies, historical data, and logic “all suggest that increased rates of productivity growth do not lead to higher unemployment,” according to the ITIF. “Indeed, historically, there has been a negative relationship between productivity growth and unemployment rates.”

Although the next wave of innovation won’t create mass unemployment, noted the ITIF, “it will likely increase labor market churn, making it much more essential that states and the federal government do a better job equipping workers with the support, tools and skills they need to navigate a more turbulent labor market.”

Tolson said his union and others have adapted to technology and embraced it for decades. “It started more than 15 years ago, when hand trowels (which are used to lay thick layers of concrete evenly and smoothly) were supplemented by walk-behind ones and, later, by ride-on machines,” he reported. “We have to adapt. These new machines still need humans to operate them. We’ve incorporated robotics into our programs at our two New Jersey training centers in Bordentown and Fairfield.”

Other unions are also adopting to technology, which is “integrating into everything we do, and will continue to accelerate,” according to Greg Lalevee, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 and chairman of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative. “It’s not uncommon to see GPS-controlled bulldozers and other equipment on a job site, where operating plans are loaded onto the machine and the blade moves up and down accordingly as needed. The excavator automatically knows if its on-grade, but you still need a human operator to be sure that the dig won’t collapse.”

Towering cranes have also been upgraded with sophisticated computerized systems, noted Lalevee. “The crane’s screen can tell you how much weight is on the hook, the percentage of capacity you’ve got, wind speed and other information,” he said. “Equipment operators can’t be afraid of technology. You’ve got to have some comfort level with computerized input and output.”

To ensure his union members have that knowledge, Local 825 has applied to the state Department of Education to have its heavy-equipment operators training center recognized as an accredited technical college with the ability to offer associate degrees in applied sciences.

“Almost all the jobs of the future will require people to master technology,” Lalevee said. “Right now, for example, someone can be a crane operator, but in the future that individual will also have to be able to program and troubleshoot the equipment — in addition to being the operator, they’ll be the first point of tech support.”

Filling out the paperwork alone for the educational initiative took about 20 months, Lalevee added. “We’ve been aggressively pursuing this, and anticipate it’ll take about another 18 months to get approved. At that point we’ll build the academic infrastructure, like filling out the administrative faculty positions. This is all new ground for us.”

His union is already speaking with adjunct professors and has been discussing partnerships with four-year institutions. “We think this could be the apprenticeship of the future,” said Lalevee. “At some point down the road you could may see us in high schools at career night.”

Digging a ditch is an analog procedure, he added, “but when you add a computer to it, the operation has a digital angle and it appeals to young people looking for higher education and for a career. The onslaught of robotics on the factory floor did a lot of damage to the [United Automobile Workers], and we don’t want to be in a position like that as it creeps up into our industry. We want to be prepared.”

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