Recessions destroy jobs not robots


May is one of my favourite months of the year. Not because it warms up and brings milder weather. Not because of the number of bank holidays we get in the UK or that it is National Burger Month or National Innovators Month (who decides these?) – but because of the massive amount of data that becomes available during the month. It marks when most of the annual reports are available, and importantly it marks when National Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its annual occupation statistic for the US. If that isn’t exciting, you clearly aren’t a data junkie like me ????

These statistics are important as they show real job creation and job losses – which comes as a refreshing contrast to the recent obsession we see around the prediction of mass job losses caused by digital and the shift toward more digital operations. This rhetoric is becoming increasingly unhelpful as enterprise organizations navigate the ongoing shift toward digitally engaged commerce. The current mantra de jour being advances in machine learning, the internet of things (IoT), data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) will steadily eliminate all kinds of jobs. Economies across the globe will have to brace themselves for massive job destruction.

We’ve all seen the studies that state that half of manufacturing jobs will be eliminated by automation in the next decade. Driverless trucks and trains are set to become commonplace, eliminating many more jobs. Advances in technology are not only impacting lower skilled jobs but also skilled professions. People with advanced qualifications such as lawyers and doctors are undertaking activities that can be automated.

Although there is some truth in this – technology is taking on increasing amounts of low skilled and mundane work, the largest inhibitor to the continued digital transformation of businesses and whole industries is, and will continue to be, a lack of skills. Yes, it is a shortage of talent that will slow down the adoption of new technologies such as robotics, AI, big data analytics, and the IoT.

The truth as you can clearly see below, automation doesn’t kill jobs – wider economic issues kill job creation – recessions and stagnation. As you can see from labor statistics in the US – in spite of the growth of automation there is still a net gain in jobs over the last 5 years:

Although automation will impact jobs, the rate at which jobs will be eliminated will be limited by the availability of skills that can implement and manage this technology. Which tends to self-regulate the creation v destruction trend and help, at least with the timing of any job market adjustment. As we have seen in past industrial revolutions, these shifts in jobs end up creating more work than they eliminate. We saw in the 18th century industrial revolution massive shifts from agricultural work – we expect a similar trend with this current wave of disruption.

New jobs will need to be created to enable automation, and to engender the innovation facilitated by new technology. Skills required for these new jobs are in extremely short supply. We maintain that a lack of people with appropriate skills, will slow any shift in operating models toward driverless trucks, driverless trains, software defined factories, connected health, smart grids, smart cities and so forth.

So what will these new roles be?

The biggest change will be a shift from specific functional roles to more blended multilayered job. With more complex skill sets being required. Organizations will need to acquire talent which blends technical skills with operational skills (industry specific skills) as well as softer skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, continuous learning, active listening and other non traditional capabilities. Education and training from technology professionals needs to be much more holistic, given that technology is transforming many aspects of our lives. With education and training institutions having to adjust offerings so they develop the required blended and holistic skill sets for the needs of the emerging job market. These new jobs emphasize skills, knowledge and willingness to learn, over traditional highly specialized degrees, and the rather narrow scoped careers that gave people their early work experience.

Valuable workers will soon be those who can adapt and learn new skills as and when more automation is embedded within their role. To stay ahead in the talent game, businesses should focus on:

  • Hiring for potential. This means hiring staff based on their inherent ability to learn and adapt to situations rather than their experience, particularly if it is narrow.
  • Learning not education. These two things are not the same – if you hire people who are able to learn, you must provide a continuous learning environment and incentives based on learning. Just hiring people with Stanford or Harvard degrees won’t necessarily give you people who are able to learn on the job long term.
  • This means looking outside of the norm when hiring. Traditional MBA courses may not provide you with people who have flexibility to operate in today’s multidisciplinary world.
  • Work with external education establishments to make sure students have the skills you want. Better to invest in helping universities develop the skills you need in people rather than focus on competing for them. Demonstrating a willingness to invest in young people is likely to engender loyalty and being part of university programmes provides more opportunity to demonstrate that commitment than the usual milk round and job fairs.

The Bottom Line – We must focus on generating value for customers, not protectionism and panic-mongering

There needs to be a shift in emphasis away from set task based skills to more blended and soft skills where technical and business skills combine. Without an increase in the supply of these kind of people the transformation to more digitally driven operating models will be slowed. Hiring policies need to look to the future, without the right people the step into the digitally enabled world will slow to a crawl.

It today’s swirl of gibbering noise around the social media presses, it’s the responsibility of leading analysts, advisors and academics to be the voices of sanity and reason, when it comes to topics as critical as the future of work elimination through Intelligent Automation technology.  The automation vendors love the hype as it gets them attention with clients, but analysts who like to take money from these vendors have a responsibility to articulate the realities of these technologies to their clients. They are great at augmenting work flows, and even aiding medical discoveries, but this is the real value – it’s not about sacking people.  It’s about making operations function better so people can do their jobs better.  The real “roboboss” is the human enterprise operator who can use smart Intelligent automation tools to enhance the quality of their work.

Net-net, industry analysts, advisors, robotics vendors, academics and service providers need to engage with clients around how all these disruptive approaches will affect talent management as well as organizational structures. Even without these apocalyptic scenarios, some job functions are likely to either disappear or be significantly diminished (as our automation job impact forecast reveals). Equally, we need to talk about governance of these new environments, touching upon ethical, but also practical, issues. This is not only a necessity for the broader adoption, but also offers high value opportunities. 

Posted in : Robotic Process Automation


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