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April 2014, Volume 20, Number 2

Mechanization, Job Training

The prospect of fewer new Mexican-born farm workers has rekindled interest in labor-saving farm machinery. Many buyers of fruits and vegetables are requiring their suppliers to implement traceability systems and to pass tests of compliance with government and private health and safety standards, including those set by OSHA and PrimusLabs.

In some cases, harvesting and handling produce by machine makes it easier to satisfy food safety standards set by produce buyers.

Computers are expected to speed the elimination of many jobs now performed by workers, including in agriculture. A combination of the falling price of computer power, digital data that can be "mined" by computers, and artificial intelligence or cognitive computing that allows machines to "learn" may eliminate jobs from financial analyst to laborer.

Baxter from Rethink Robotics is a $25,000 adaptive machine that can move items and learn with experience, while Harvey or HV-100 from Harvest Automation is a $30,000 robot that can move nursery pots for about $0.03 a move, compared with $0.05 for hand labor. Harvest Automation says that 700 US nursery and greenhouse operations account for 60 percent of total production and are the primary market for first-wave robots.

UC-Davis received $1.1 million from USDA to develop robots that increase the efficiency of strawberry pickers.

In most of US agriculture, labor productivity was raised by substituting capital for labor, or using machines to save labor, with the result that the fewer remaining farmers and farm workers had higher incomes. Labor-saving mechanization research at land-grant universities was slowed in the 1980s and 1990s by lawsuits that challenged the use of public funds to develop machines that displaced small farmers and farm workers. Migrant workers were readily available, dulling grower interest in machinery.

Apple growers are testing harvest-assist machines that eliminate ladders for workers pruning and harvesting applies. The machines facilitate night harvesting but require workers to work as teams, which seems easier for H-2A workers who are not accustomed to maximizing individual piece-rate earnings.

Stemilt Ag Services and other apple growers reported that productivity rose on picking platforms, with some machine crews able to average two bins an hour per worker, compared to one bin an hour per worker using ladders.

Job Training. The Government Accountability Office released a report in March 2014 that concluded that the government lacks sufficient data to determine whether job training leads to job placement. The GAO analyzed data from DOL's Workforce Investment Act Standardized Record Data (WIASRD) system for 2011 and concluded that of the two million participants in the adult and dislocated worker programs, 11 percent of those in the adult program and 16 percent of those in the dislocated worker program received training, but only two-thirds of the trainees in each program attained a credential.

DOL does not know how many of those who got training also obtained jobs related to their training, since there was no employment data for 52 percent of participants in the adult program and 26 percent of participants in the dislocated worker program. Case managers noted that student privacy laws and worker mobility make it hard to learn who earned credentials and got jobs.

The Workforce Investment Act has not be reauthorized since the end of FY03 because of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over government-funded job training. Republicans, who said that the GAO report showed there was a lack of accountability in federal training programs, in March 2013 approved the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act (HR 803) to consolidate 35 federal workforce development programs into a single investment fund that states would decide how to spend. SKILLs would establish credential attainment and training-related employment as performance measures.

The Senate's Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization (S 1356) would make credential attainment but not training-related employment a performance measure.

President Obama in January 2014 ordered Vice President Joe Biden and the secretaries of Labor, Commerce and Education to conduct a comprehensive review of US job training programs and make recommendations to better align worker skills and employer demands within six months. Obama promised to move away from federal subsidies for "train and pray" that train workers in the hope they will find jobs.

A January 2014 report noted that the US restaurant industry had 10 million employees and generated sales of over $660 billion in 2013. High employee turnover is an issue in the four major types of restaurants: fine upscale dining, casual fine dining, moderately priced family restaurants and fast food/quick service restaurants. Turnover is highest in fast-food, and lowest in fine dining, where wages are higher and there is more employer investment in training. The median wage in US restaurants was $9 an hour in 2012, and seven of the 10 lowest-paid US occupations were in the restaurant industry.

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