A recent Brookings Institute report linking a resistance to manufacturing automation to an employee’s political positioning has some of South Carolina’s industry voices echoing “political propaganda.”
While the report intended to highlight how automation perpetuates the political divide and how workers in red states feel a greater anxiety toward automation due to a variety of things including a lack of education, Brian Kuney, a regional VP at the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, labeled the report’s data as “weak” and containing “a lot of holes.”
“The article is just political propaganda,” he said. “Correlation does not prove causation.”
The report implied states with heavy manufacturing histories and low educational attainment contain not only the nation’s highest employment-weighted automation risks but also registered some of the widest Trump victory margins in the 2016 presidential election.
By contrast, all but one of the states with the least exposure to automation, and possessing the highest levels of educational attainment, voted for Hillary Clinton, perhaps reflecting greater comfort with tech trends that have most benefited these same states, according to the report.
S.C. Aerospace board members Jason Marlin, president at Champion Aerospace, and Paul Kumler, president of KTM Solutions, agreed the authors were not only trying to make a political statement but manipulating the data to ensure it.
The report was surprising on several fronts, Kumler said. “Generally, unions, blue states, and Democrats go hand in hand, but unions are usually opposed to automation, so I expected just the opposite.”
The average automation potential of Republican districts is now 47.5% of all tasks compared with the 44.7% figure for Democratic areas — revealing a modest but noticeable gap that also reflects Republican dependence on higher-exposed smaller towns and rural communities in the Heartland, according to the report.
“Such places tend to have lower education levels and greater relative exposure to manufacturing, transportation or other routine activities,” the report continued.
While Sen. Lindsey Graham called the Brookings effort “a dime a dozen” and pointed to the new businesses moving into the region and South Carolina every day as evidence of an educated workforce, his Republican colleague in the house, Jeff Duncan, chimed in, saying, “Advances in AI are making state manufacturing processes more efficient.”
“As a positive reflection on our workforce, employers continue to locate and expand in South Carolina,” he said.
So where is the resistance to automation in the Palmetto State?
The South Carolina Department of Commerce reports the state’s automotive sector records an annual economic impact at more than $27 billion with nearly $10 billion invested between 2011 and 2018 alone.
BMW spokesperson Sky Foster told the Upstate Business Journal automation is very common in the automotive industry and there is “no associate resistance to the increased use of automation.”
“Our associates in South Carolina have seen the plant’s use of robots grow over the past 25 years,” she said. “Now, about 99% of welding is performed by robots, and we have more than 2,000 robots in our body shops, more than 240 in our paint shops, and dozens in both assembly halls.”
As area executives reject the connection to a political stance and local manufacturers repel the idea of automation resistance on their work floors, the large OEMs aren’t reporting any employee concerns.
Staubli Robotics spokesperson Janet Abel said factory robots are either working collaboratively with the employee or helping in harsh, repetitive environments where employees don’t want to work.”
According to the Brookings report, the data confirms both a stark history of automation in Trump country and substantial future exposure that points to more work flux, more job uncertainty, and potentially more political disruption.
And yet, the work “fails to take in account that labor markets are tight everywhere,” Kevin Landmesser, the GADC’s senior vice president, rebutted.
The work ignores the emerging skills gaps as a national issue, he said. “Automation is becoming a standard around the country and this is a national industry issue, not a political one.”
The South Carolina Democratic Party would not comment.