Technology, especially accelerated adoption of e-commerce and automation, continues to shape the logistics landscape, but its long-term impact on the industry’s workforce will be felt in small steps rather than grand leaps, according to research from MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, released this week.
Researchers examined trends in warehousing and trucking over the last 20 years to determine the impact of current and future automation on each industry’s employment. They link the growth of e-commerce to increasing demand for automation in both industries—a trend heightened by the coronavirus pandemic—but they point to the slow adoption of automation as evidence of a gradual shift and resulting chance for policy makers to help transition many workers to new opportunities.
“This [research] underscores how technological change has been a constant in the warehousing industry and more recently in the trucking industry,” according to Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. “But the technological disruption envisioned in recent years for workers is going to be more gradual than many have predicted. The [research] explores the policy changes that can help us get ahead of displacement for workers whose jobs are most at risk.”
A growing labor force in both warehousing and trucking has contributed to increasing output for both industries since 2000, the research showed. Taking a close look at automation strategies, the researchers found that both industries are still years away from implementing the “killer app” that will reshape their labor forces: In trucking, the killer app is a commercially viable autonomous truck that travels on interstate highways, a development they say is still “at least a decade away.” In warehousing, the killer app is automated recognition and grasping of small, individual items, something the researchers say is still “in the early stages of development.”
The steady pace toward automation opens the door for policy makers to take action. The researchers make a few recommendations they say will help transition the industry’s workforce of the future, including:
Developing an employer-community college consortia to expand access to career education and prepare low-wage logistics workers for better jobs that are under less threat from automation.
Implementing local economic development incentives to encourage new warehouses to set a higher-than-market minimum wage and cooperate with local career education consortia.
The adoption of a federal mileage tax on autonomous trucks to fund a program administered by the states to provide a safety net for truck drivers displaced by automation and help them transition into other occupations.
The research is part of a series of projects by MIT faculty aimed at helping “frame national discussion and policies about work, technology, and how we can create greater shared prosperity in the country,” according to the authors.