The nursery and greenhouse industry is often described as one of the fastest-growing sectors of U.S. agriculture and is inherently labor intensive (Regelbrugge, 2007). To sustain robust growth in the industry, continuous improvements in the skills of the workforce and their year-round availability are necessary. These workers perform varied functions and are subjected to different working conditions. Many jobs in the industry require large amounts of stooping, lifting of heavy containers, and exposure to chemicals, dust, and plant materials. These tend to be relatively low-paying jobs, making it difficult for managers to compete for and retain workers in currently tight domestic labor markets. Many commercial operations have employed immigrant labor, which is mostly less skilled, to meet their rising labor requirements. In the long-run, there is a need to increase the skill level of these migrant workers to improve wage rates, recruitment, and retention of workers.
A regional socioeconomic survey of nursery and greenhouse automation and mechanization was conducted in the northern Gulf of Mexico region as a part of a research program undertaken by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and the U.S. Department of Labor entitled “Enhancing Labor Performance of the Green Industry in the Gulf South.” The 10-page socioeconomic survey consisted of eight parts, namely, workers' demographic characteristics, nursery characteristics, nursery mechanization, greenhouse automation, labor and capital markets, pesticide and chemicals, working conditions, and respondents' characteristics. The overall goals of the regional socioeconomic survey were to develop a socioeconomic profile of horticulture workers and to evaluate the impact of automation on their employment, earnings, safety, skill levels, and retention rates (Posadas et al., 2004). However, the specific objectives of this paper were to develop an index of the level of automation or mechanization among nurseries and greenhouses in the northern Gulf of Mexico region, and to measure the socioeconomic impact of automation or mechanization on total revenues, annual employment, and workers' earnings, skills, training, safety, and retention rates.
Mechanization of an operation can provide mechanical power, speed, repetition, safety, and a greater potential for consistency and quality control. Automation includes these attributes but with greater flexibility, and potentially, some automated decision-making (Giacomelli, 2002). Mechanization is normally defined as the replacement of a human task with a machine. However, true automation encompasses more than mechanization. Automation involves the entire process, including bringing material to and from the mechanized equipment. It normally involves integrating several operations and ensuring that the different pieces of equipment communicate with one another to ensure smooth operation. Many times, true automation requires reevaluating and changing current processes rather than simply mechanizing them (Porter, 2002). The possible benefits associated with automation were summarized by Ling (1994) as follows: reduce the manual labor requirement, improve production quality, eliminate hazardous working conditions, reduce production costs, increase market value, and improve professional esteem.
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