Meat packaging giant Tyson Foods plans to spend $ 1.3 billion over the next three years to automate parts of its chicken processing line.
Tyson said in an investor presentation earlier this month, automation will cut more than 3,000 jobs at its factories through 2024, mostly boning roles in chicken operations.
Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said automation is a sign of the times.
Robots in agriculture are thriving, after decades of advances in automation in industries such as automotive manufacturing and electronics. The cheap labor in agriculture had kept the machines at bay, but he said recent wage increases have made robots competitive with humans.
Tyson isn’t the only food company to introduce robots. Acemoglu sees companies developing robots for picking fruits and package the products.
âIt’s the next frontier in a sense,â he said.
The important part, Acemoglu said, is that Tyson balances its investments in automation with creating new jobs for workers. Without new opportunities, his research found that robots kick low-skilled workers out of the workforce and penalize them financially.
Robotization and job cuts could hurt Midwestern cities that rely on packers as their main employers. Although Tyson’s beef plant in Garden City, Kansas is not an immediate candidate for poultry technology, the fact that it provides a in five jobs in the county gives some idea of ââthe economic pillars that factories offer to small communities.
Certain factors, such as the willingness of workers to travel for work and the demand for manufacturing labor from the Midwest, will mitigate the negative effects of job losses, said Eric Thompson, an economist at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
âStill, a move toward the automation of meat could start to reverse the population gains that some cities saw when factories came to cities,â Thompson said. “It could accelerate the decline of the population in rural America.”
To be sure, 3,000 jobs represent only 2% of Tyson’s global workforce. And the company says these are hard-to-fill positions where it experiences some of its most serious worker shortages.
But Thompson said the news came with a bit of irony, two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
âMeat workers have remained at work during the pandemic, with a huge risk of falling ill,â he said. “The reward is the automation of their tasks.”