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

 
 

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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