If you’ve read a business journal in the last few years, you’ll have heard that robots are coming to steal your job more than a handful of times. An Oxford University study in 2013 predicted that close to 50% of jobs will be replaced by automation by 2033[i]. PwC predicted that close to 40% of jobs in the US would be lost to automation[ii]. McKinsey reported in 2017 that more than 800 million workers could be replaced with robots by 2030[iii]. Not to be outdone, the CEO of an online training software company predicted that more than a billion people will lose their jobs to automation in the next ten years – and that COVID has accelerated this path by nine years[iv]. In short, it’s hard to read a business journal these days without someone predicting doom and gloom.
The problem with this line of thinking is, of course, that it’s not true. In 2019 more than $135 billion was invested in robotics, up from $71 billion in 2015[v]. If the robots are coming to take your jobs, then that should mean that the global workforce shrunk significantly between 2015 and 2019. Instead, the global workforce grew by close to 300 million workers over that same time[vi]. Therefore, we know that workforce automation does not systematically eliminate jobs. In fact, on a firm-level, it can lead to an increase in employment. In a study of manufacturers who deployed robots from 2010 to 2015, those firms increased their workforce by close to 11%[vii]. While there are certain jobs that are at risk for automation, from a global perspective an increase in automation has always meant an increase in employment.
But if the robots aren’t coming to steal your jobs, is the opposite true? Are robots really coming to save your jobs? Well, in a global pandemic there are certain advantages to deploying robots. First, robots cannot contract COVID, and therefore cannot spread it. As a result, robots do not need to maintain social distancing. This allows firms to be able to remain open or keep production running when social distancing guidelines may have otherwise prevented them from operating. Whereas a plant may have had to close to help prevent the spread of the virus – putting all employees out of work – deploying robots to work alongside workers can help keep the majority of those people employed.
The retail industry is another area where workers and robots co-exist and complement each other’s work. In the grocery industry, automation – including everything from self-checkout machines to robots that clean and sanitize – have been deployed to help with spikes in business associated with the pandemic[viii]. Autonomous cleaning robots have been widely deployed during the pandemic. In the past, these automated cleaning robots may have been used to replace after-hours human cleaning staff, but now the two are working alongside each other during the day, in clear view of the customers. These practices help give customers confidence that the store is taking sanitation seriously – increasing the likelihood of customers returning to stores and freeing up employees to clean just the high-touch areas where human attention-to-detail is required. Stores can clean more surfaces more frequently by combining human and automated labor. Remove this joint cleaning effort from man and machine from view and customers might lose confidence, which could lead to a reduction in business, which could threaten the economic security of the rest of the employees.
So are the robots coming to steal jobs, or are they coming to save jobs? And perhaps more importantly, what effects can you expect automation to have on your workforce as a whole?
While the introduction of workforce automation has always led to an increase in jobs, there are individuals who do get displaced. Generally speaking, jobs that feature tasks that are repeatable and predictable are those most at risk for automation. Examples include food preparation and service, production operations, and office and administrative support. Some automation was born out of the pandemic. Time will tell whether the shift from human to machine labor in sectors like these will be permanent.
Prior to deploying workforce automation, companies should examine how they can retrain workers displaced by the robots so they can retain these engaged and loyal employees and put their skills to use in new ways. Governments should offer incentives to organizations that retrain workers facing displacement by technology. For example, the United Kingdom launched a £2.5 billion National Skills fund to in part help retrain workers who are at risk to losing their jobs to automation[ix]. These and other programs like it can help workers prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.
At the same time, if the global pandemic has taught us one thing about automation in the workforce it’s that robots can be used to help organizations survive and even grow in times of crisis. It seems inevitable that organizations who embrace automation while serving the best interests of their employees and customers will come out of this period of upheaval stronger and in a better position to thrive.