Aluminum and automation: our workforce confounded

An automated assembly produces aluminum electric cars at a Tesla plant. (SCREENSHOT)

This week I’ll be taking part in Policy and a Pint, a discussion series sponsored by the Citizen’s League and MPR’s The Current. The event, titled “Talent Within the Range,” runs from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. (Tickets are free; sign up here). In honor of the occasion, I’ll be visiting themes related to the future of the Iron Range workforce here at the blog this week. Today’s entry explores two of the challenges facing predicting the future of the Iron Range.


The Mesabi Iron Range makes iron that makes steel that makes cars. That’s what I was taught growing up, riding around in the “way back” of a GM Cutlass Cruiser station wagon on the highways of Northern Minnesota. And despite thousands of jobs lost and a stagnant local economy, this is still true.

But change that started in the late 1970s continues. We’re not done yet.

Wired Magazine explored the Tesla production process recently, showing how a mostly aluminum electric car comes together on a mostly automated assembly line. I’d recommend watching this.

That’s a lot of aluminum in these cars. Lighter weight than steel, aluminum allows for better fuel efficiency. It’s already a widely discussed fact that Ford uses high grade aluminum in new F-150 trucks. The claim is that these alloys can match the strength of steel while saving gas. If that bears out, aluminum vehicles could dramatically change the playing field for the steel industry.

And then there’s the issue of automation.

I’ve been writing a lot about automation this year. Thirty-eight percent of American jobs could be automated within 15 years. Automation is the single biggest reason for job losses in the Iron Range mining industry over the past 30 years. Retail, food service, truck driving. Some of the most common jobs in America are at risk of being automated.

And there’s really nothing we can do about that. I mean, there is, but the suppression of technology would require draconian policies unlikely to be supported by liberals or conservatives. So the question is, how will we learn to adapt to automation. How will we develop purpose for workers whose jobs simply cease to exist?

The short answer is that the knowledge economy will become more important than the industrial economy. It will, in fact, replace it. So the question here in Northern Minnesota isn’t how we can turn back the clock to 1945 mining employment, but how we can take a century of knowledge about mining and apply it to technology and software development.

Additionally, we need to find a way to pay for labor that, while resistant to automation, isn’t currently profitable. Community service. Special projects. Community development.

Don’t read this the wrong way. Steel will remain an important material in construction and manufacturing. And no amount of automation will completely eliminate the need for human labor or intellectual achievement. Further, aluminum is harder to find than iron ore, creating the possibility of limited demand and higher prices. That aluminum Tesla isn’t the angel of death. It’s just a raven rapping at our chamber door. (No word on whether it quoth, “Nevermore.”)

This does, however, mean that predicting the future of our workforce becomes very difficult. It seems logical, however, that training for knowledge and critical thinking will be paramount.

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