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

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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