Automation nation

Houston jobs could be hit hard by the rise of robots, one study finds

Texas is listed as the third-most vulnerable state when it comes to robots replacing the workforce in manufacturing. Houston houses a third of the manufacturing jobs in the state. Thossaphol Somsri/Getty Images

If a new forecast comes true, Houston's manufacturing sector could take an especially hard hit from the upturn in the use of robots.

In a new report, Oxford Economics, a forecasting and analysis firm based in the United Kingdom, ranks Texas as the third most vulnerable state when it comes to human workers in manufacturing being replaced by robotic labor. The report gives no estimate of how many manufacturing jobs Texas might lose to robots, but around the world, robots could boot 20 million jobs by 2030.

About one-third of Texas' manufacturers operate in the Houston metro area, meaning the robot revolution carries significant weight for the regional economy.

In 2017, manufacturing accounted for $82.6 billion, or nearly 17 percent, of the Houston area's economic output, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says. Manufacturing employment in the region averaged 219,160 jobs in 2017, with total wages of nearly $4.8 billion.

Among the top manufacturing segments in the region are fabricated metals (22 percent of all manufacturing jobs), machinery (19 percent) and chemicals (17.5 percent), according to the Greater Houston Partnership. Between 2012 and 2017, manufacturing employment in the Houston area slipped by 9.8 percent, going from 243,011 workers to 219,160 workers.

However, a recent report from the Economic Innovation Group shows Harris County netted more manufacturing jobs (11,592) from December 2016 to December 2018 than any other county in the U.S.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the manufacturing sector in Texas created more than $226 billion in economic output in 2017. Last year, about 880,900 people held manufacturing jobs in Texas; that's more than 7 percent of the statewide workforce.

In declaring that Texas sits among the states most susceptible to job losses due to robotics, Oxford Economics took into account factors such as:

  • Dependence on manufacturing jobs.
  • Current use of robots in manufacturing.
  • Productivity of the manufacturing workforce.

Based on those criteria, Texas received a robot vulnerability score of 0.50. The top two states, Oregon and Louisiana, each got a score of 0.58, with the higher number meaning greater vulnerability.

The report cites three reasons for the ascent of robots in manufacturing:

  • Robots are becoming cheaper than humans.
  • Robots are becoming more sophisticated.
  • Demand for manufactured goods is rising.

"The rise of the robots will boost productivity and economic growth. It will lead, too, to the creation of new jobs in yet-to-exist industries, in a process of 'creative destruction,'" according to the Oxford Economics report. "But existing business models across many sectors will be seriously disrupted. And tens of millions of existing jobs will be lost, with human workers displaced by robots at an increasing rate as robots become steadily more sophisticated."

Tony Bennett, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Manufacturers, says the Oxford Economics report isn't all gloom and doom.

"Robotics and mechanization in our advanced manufacturing industries will continue to displace some general-labor jobs. However, this change is also ushering in a new set of higher-skilled jobs that are being created to engineer, build, and service these sophisticated machines," Bennett says. "The state of Texas must continue striving to increase educational opportunities in engineering, math, science, and career and technical programs to meet the complex manufacturing processes of the future."

Houston Community College's Advanced Manufacturing Center for Excellence is among the organizations in the Houston area that are preparing workers for jobs in robotics and other high-demand, tech-driven aspects of manufacturing.

"Innovation is Houston's bedrock," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in 2017. "The city would have never thrived without the innovations it took to build the Ship Channel and the innovating that goes on every day in the energy industry, at the Texas Medical Center, at the Johnson Space Center and in the manufacturing sector. Now, Houston is poised to take its place at the forefront of the American future in technology."

Earlier this year, another study found a similarly daunting result. Almost half of Houston's workplace tasks are susceptible to automation, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Of 100 metros analyzed, Houston ranks 31st among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46.3 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.

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Building Houston

 
 

Juliana Garaizar is now the chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs, as well as continuing to be head of the Houston incubator. Image courtesy of Greentown

The new year has brought some big news from Greentown Labs.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based climatetech incubator with its second location at Greentown Houston named a new member to its C-suite, is seeking new Houston team members, and has officially finished its transition into a nonprofit.

Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate.

"Now that we are more than 80 members, we need more internal coordination," she explains. "Considering that the goal for Greentown is to grow to more locations, there's going to be more coordination and, I'd say, more autonomy for the Houston campus."

The promotion follows a recent announcement that Emily Reichert, who served as CEO for the company for a decade, has stepped back to become CEO emeritus. Greentown is searching for its next leader and CFO Kevin Taylor is currently serving as interim CEO. Garaizar says the transition is representative of Greentown's future as it grows to more locations and a larger organization.

"Emily's transition was planned — but, of course, in stealth mode," Garaizar says, adding that Reichert is on the committee that's finding the new CEO. "She thinks scaling is a different animal from putting (Greentown) together, which she did really beautifully."

Garaizar says her new role will include overseeing Greentown's new nonprofit status. She tells InnovationMap that the organization originally was founded as a nonprofit, but converted to a for-profit in order to receive a loan at its first location. Now, with the mission focus Greentown has and the opportunities for grants and funding, it was time to convert back to a nonprofit, Garaizar says.

"When we started fundraising for Houston, everyone was asking why we weren't a nonprofit. That opened the discussion again," she says. "The past year we have been going through that process and we can finally say it has been completed.

"I think it's going to open the door to a lot more collaboration and potential grants," she adds.

Greentown is continuing to grow its team ahead of planned expansion. The organization hasn't yet announced its next location — Garaizar says the primary focus is filling the CEO position first. In Houston, the hub is also looking for an events manager to ensure the incubator is providing key programming for its members, as well as the Houston innovation community as a whole.

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