Robots, artificial intelligence and automation are reshaping Iowa's workforce. Is your job at risk?
WEST BEND, Ia. — If one machine goes down inside the Country Maid plant, the whole operation devoted to churning out Butter Braid pastries comes to a screeching halt.
The stainless steel giants that make up the automated production line constantly talk with each other. When something goes wrong at one station, an alert is instantly sent to the next in line, effectively cutting workers out of the mix.
Over the years, the work of making Butter Braid pastries — frozen desserts sold through nonprofit fundraisers across the country — increasingly has shifted from human to machine labor.
Employees in the northwest Iowa plant keep watch over the sophisticated equipment, but it's up to machines to mix the dough, fold in giant blocks of butter and cut precise loaves of pastry.
Across Iowa, companies are making massive investments in automation that are raising productivity but require fewer workers. Since 2000, Iowa has shed nearly 39,000 manufacturing jobs, a 15 percent loss.
In addition, the rise of artificial intelligence is creating jobs and eliminating others far beyond the factory floor.
Fifteen years ago, 70 percent of the workers at Principal Financial handled paper transactions or customer interactions. Today, just 30 percent do.
From automation to computerization, sweeping changes in Iowa's workplaces are requiring workers to adapt to new roles or acquire more education to stay relevant in the workforce.
By 2025, nearly 70 percent of all jobs in Iowa will require some training beyond high school, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
Currently, only 58 percent of Iowans 25 to 64 have completed some education beyond high school.
Still, state officials say automation doesn't necessarily spell doom for workers.
Iowa factory leaders say their investments in new technologies have actually fueled job growth as better equipment has fueled productivity and overall output.
And in some cases, workforce shortages are accelerating such investments, putting machines in plants that struggle to find available employees.
At the Country Maid plant, automation initially caused some anxiety among employees, said Deb Bleuer, a 24-year veteran. But over time, they adjusted.
"The productivity, how much more you can produce, is incredible," she said. "What we used to make in a day, we now make in an hour."
As the company's fortunes rose alongside its investments in machines, employees' stresses faded.
"We always hired more people," Bleuer said, "and change made us bigger and bigger — more people, more opportunities."
'It's not something that can be resisted'
Manufacturers note that technological change has been a gradual evolution. Automation itself is as old as the printing press and the cotton gin.
"There was once huge riots over sewing machines. And people are still sewing," said Jack Smith, who owns Cybersmith Engineering in Forest City.
"Yeah, it’s had an effect on jobs, but, I mean, look at what happened to bank tellers with ATMs. It's not something that can be resisted, really."
His small machine shop creates automation equipment for manufacturers worldwide. Automation changes the nature of work, but it doesn't necessarily kill jobs, Smith argues.
"If somebody gets automated out of a job, they still have a job doing something else, usually," Smith said. "And there's usually enough attrition in a larger factory that nobody notices anyhow."
Smith said automation-related changes in a plant come at an incremental pace. If an operator previously stamped out 20 parts per minute, machine upgrades might increase the rate to 40 per minute.
"Even in a union shop, we’ll go talk to the people and let them know what's going on. Usually, they’re on board for making their job easier," he said. "They wouldn’t, of course, be on board if we said, 'We’re going to get rid of 30 of you a year from now.'"
'Everybody's job is going to look different'
Butter Braid founders Ken and Marlene Banwart started making their flaky pastries in their basement, selling them at local farmers markets as a way to bolster family income during the 1980s farm crisis.
By 1992, the business had grown into a shop in a standalone building in West Bend. In January 2000, the plant began investing in industrialized automation.
The upgrades never led to labor cuts, though some employees went on to other tasks, said CEO Darin Massner. He said automation has decreased workplace accidents, while also improving output.
In 2000, workers produced about 5,000 pastries a day. Now, output has more than quadrupled, Massner said.
"I don't see automation as a job killer," he said. "But it does require us to continually learn."
The takeaway is the same for workers, he said: It's increasingly important to take on new roles and learn how to use new tools.
"I anticipate in 10 more years, my job's going to look different," Massner said. "Everybody's job is going to look different, and that's OK."
'The rebirth of manufacturing'
The evolution of Iowa's factories nowadays is more likely to reveal sparkling floors, digital monitors and high-powered computers than rust, grime and grease.
"In many cases these aren’t your grandfather's manufacturing floors," said Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. "They're really tech floors that happen to be manufacturing a product."
Durham knows it's easy to disdain automation as a job-killer. But she argues that it has allowed Iowa firms to remain globally competitive.
Across Iowa, 212,000 people work in factories large and small. Technology has played a role in keeping manufacturing a viable career option here, even as factory jobs have dropped nationwide since their high point in 1979, according to federal data.
Still, manufacturing job losses have hit some Iowa communities especially hard. Cerro Gordo County lost 35 percent of its manufacturing base in just a decade. In Webster County, more than three-quarters of all factory jobs vanished between 2006 and 2016.
Research released in May from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that each industrial robot introduced in a factory pushes down wages and leads to the equivalent of about 5.6 lost jobs.
A June study from Ball State University researchers predicted that automation will continue to target jobs, particularly data entry keyers, mathematical science occupations and telemarketers.
“Automation is likely to replace half of all low-skilled jobs,” Michael Hicks, the director of the university's Center for Business and Economic Research, said in a news release.
Yet Iowa officials believe manufacturing still has a future in Iowa.
More advanced machines may automate some assembly line tasks, but they can also open up new positions for machinists, engineers and other higher-skilled workers.
Among the state's efforts to promote manufacturing, Durham points to Future Ready Iowa, a workforce initiative to build Iowa's talent pipeline, and a gubernatorial declaration of 2017 as the Year of Manufacturing.
"I think you’re seeing the rebirth of manufacturing," she said.
'Nobody likes change at first'
But that doesn't diminish the unsettling changes workers are seeing at many plants.
Over the years, the ranks of workers at the John Deere Dubuque Works factory has shrunk from a high of 6,000 to about 1,300 union members today.
"I’ve toured plants in Detroit and different places," said Dan White, president of the UAW Local 94. "And the story is the same: They’re not what they used to be, but they’re producing more product."
That goes for Dubuque as well, where the operation increasingly has become automated. White started out as a welder, sometimes working with rusty and oily parts.
Now, welders and plumbers operate robotic welders inside the spotless plant. Over the years, output increased, even as the production line's footprint shrank.
"People like the work a lot," White said. "There’s so much more work that can be done in so much less space."
That kind of transformation has played out hundreds of times across the small and medium manufacturers that dot every Iowa county.
Farming's technology revolution
Experts say the changing American farm has a lot in common with manufacturing.
As advanced machines allowed each farmer to do more, the numbers of farms and farmers tumbled: Since 1900, the number of U.S. farms has fallen 63 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Iowa State University Economist Peter Orazem said farming shows that a jobs-above-all mentality is short-sighted. Industrialized agriculture has made food more affordable and allowed more ag workers to find gainful employment in other areas.
"If all you want is people to be employed, let’s get rid of tractors," Orazem said. "Everybody can go back to hand-farming and back to subsistence living."
Orazem said it's difficult to argue that automation has led to large job losses in manufacturing in Iowa. The state's unemployment rate was 3.1 percent in May. It hasn't topped 4 percent in 28 months.
But Orazem said those who view manufacturing as a "safe haven" for workers with limited education and skills are mistaken. Those jobs increasingly require more of workers.
"If I am not a high school graduate, this economy is going to be very damaging to my job prospects," Orazem said, "because what we’ve done is replaced the low-skill routine jobs, and we’re likely to continue to replace those because it’s expensive to hire people with relatively low productivity in this particular economy."
Technology has its limits
Automation and other new technologies are rolling through local office buildings just as rapidly as they spread across factory floors.
A recent survey of Des Moines-area firms by staffing agency Robert Half found that many are embracing new technologies. The survey found:
- Thirty-nine percent said their companies were using machine learning;
- Thirty-six percent reported using artificial intelligence;
- Fifty-seven percent said they have implemented the "internet of things," or IOT, which embeds internet connectivity into everyday objects so they can send and receive data.
Regional Vice President Stacey Singleton said software is changing roles across companies, such as automating daily tasks in accounts receivable and payables.
"Let's say the manager of the accounting department is able to automate an accounting task," Singleton said. "You could spend a lot more time being strategic, developing your staff, collaborating across departments, figuring out how to find more revenue or sales."
Artificial intelligence is also changing the nature of the job search itself. At Robert Half, employees used to thumb through piles of paper resumes and applications.
Now, software takes the first pass, determining which candidates are qualified, before people narrow the pool.
"You have to be nimble; you have to work at a pretty high level," Singleton said. "You have to meet high expectations and work at a fast pace. It definitely has changed."
About this project
Installments of Changing Iowa will publish about once every six weeks. The project will also include:
COMMENTARY: Do you have ideas for addressing issues raised in the series? Write a letter to the editor or pitch an op-ed column, 500 words or less, to engagement and opinion editor Lynn Hicks, firstname.lastname@example.org, 515-284-8290.
EVENTS: The Register plans to partner with local organizations to stage several forums around the state to hear directly from Iowans. Look for more details soon.
OTHER IDEAS? News Director Annah Backstrom is the coordinating editor for the project. Send her your ideas and comments, email@example.com, 515-284-8065.
WHAT’S NEXT: The changing agriculture industry. If you’d like to comment on this topic, contact agriculture reporter Donelle Eller at firstname.lastname@example.org, 515-314-6584.