Rural towns fight robot threat with new initiatives

Many of the rural towns pinpointed in a study as being at high risk from the rise of robots are fighting back with new initiatives.

‘Automation in Irish Towns: Who’s Most at Risk?’ was presented by its authors Dr. Frank Crowley and Dr. Justin Doran at ‘The Creative Rural Economy’, a recent event in University College Cork (UCC) that explored the challenges facing rural Ireland.

The towns identified as being most at risk are: Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford; Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan; Carrick-On-Suir, Co. Tipperary; Portlaw, Co. Waterford; Clones, Co. Monaghan; Tullow, Co. Carlow; Cahir, Co. Tipperary; Lifford, Co. Donegal; Edenderry, Co. Offaly; and Fethard, Co. Tipperary.

Jobs in agriculture were among those earmarked as being most at risk to automation. Towns exposed to agriculture and manufacturing are most likely to be disrupted, the study found.

Using 2016 Census data, it used an automation-risk methodology with a method of analysis to ascertain what towns will be most impacted by the risk of automation.

Adult education and training

Linda Pinkster, director of further education and training with Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board (ETB), said it already has an adult education centre in Ballyjamesduff. “We run a large number of education and training programmes there and a number in Clones as well,” she said.

“We also have a new programme as part of a national initiative, ‘Skills to Advance’. This programme provides training for people in employment and prioritises people in low-skilled employment; people over 50; and people whose jobs are in danger of being displaced by automation,” Linda said.

We are looking at engaging with industries in Ballyjamesduff and Clones to ascertain what additional training will be required to reskill or upskill people. As part of the new programme, we recently appointed a workforce development officer and I have asked her to prioritise Ballyjamesduff and Clones to see the extent of the need and potential for displacement.

Michael Nevin, head of enterprise, Longford County Council, believes that further automation is inevitable across certain sectors, particularly manufacturing. “So, if you consider C&D Foods which is by far the largest employer in Edgeworthstown, it is already one of the most modern automated plants in Europe in its sector and will always be at the forefront of new technology and new technology adoption.”

However, C&D, Michael said, also has a very strong commitment to its workforce and that workforce has continued to expand in spite of the highly automated nature of the production process.

“In our experience, where firms replace manual production jobs with automated technology, there are other opportunities created in design, product development, marketing or sales and so on, and it is our belief that the opportunities for employment in towns like Edgeworthstown should remain strong into the future,” he said.

Edgeworthstown itself is a town on an upward trajectory. Plans are advanced for a new innovation hub space for the town and a state-of-the art library will be built to create an important focal point for the town.

“The town is strategically located on the Dublin to Sligo mainline rail and the N4 national primary route is an ideal location for firms looking for a business base that offers easy access back to the capital, Dublin, and to all corners of the country.”

Informed decisions

Dr. Maura Farrell, lecturer in geography and director of MA in rural sustainability at the School of Geography and Archaeology, National University of Ireland Galway, said such rural research is imperative if policymakers are to make informed decisions about funding, rural strategy and the future direction, sustainability and development of rural Ireland.

“Without both economic and social science-funded rural research, policymakers are making decisions in a vacuum, based on ‘hearsay’ or popular opinion and not evidence-based research.”