We've been avidly following developments in automation and labor on our blog and the conversation has been taking interesting turns as time goes on. In the early days of robotics, there was a fear that robots would take over jobs (and even take over the world), but times have changed.
More recently, companies have begun to look at robots as new employee resources. Automation is being redefined just as quickly as it is being defined and the new understanding focuses more on ways that humans and robots can work together to leverage their unique individual strengths to reach a common goal.
In the past, it was generally accepted that blue collar jobs would be the first to go, whereas white collar jobs would be less suitable for automation. But now we see robotic doctors and teachers appearing in trial phases and we hear that warehouse robots still need human counterparts. The picture continues to change.
Here are some updates on the current evolving story of automation and how it will change the face of the workforce forever.
Decisions and Dexterity
Humans still have the upper hand in some areas and dexterity is one of those areas, literally. The human has it all over robotic hands-- our hands can pick up a brick or a baby bird and react with appropriate pressure and force, particularly when combined with our ability to make decisions by extrapolation. But robots are sturdy and can lift more and work physically harder without breaks.
Enter robots as coworkers instead of replacements. These “cobots” are ready to do our heavy lifting and transportation, help sort and pick and pack. In fulfillment and manufacturing, cobots are already increasing efficiency and productivity, which can relieve some of the pressure from human workers. While robots will eventually lead to fewer employees in these fields, humans have important roles involving decisions and dexerity, two areas where humans still have an advantage.
Over the Road and Beyond
Truckers may be at risk of elimination in the future. Without the driver, a truck can make a cross country trip in 2 days. The “middle mile” describes transport from major hub to delivery hub and tends to be a more predictable environment. Kodiak is already hauling freight with these autonomous vehicles.
Buyers, on the other hand, are at only a “medium risk” of being replaced by robots. These jobs still require human decision making and flair. But many lower-skilled roles have a higher risk of automation. In fact, about 20 million jobs are in the medium or high risk categories, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, there is a risk for surgeons and other high skilled jobs as well. The face of labor is changing, with Amazon already estimated to have a workforce that is 20% robotic, but the human factor persists.
Skills and Reskilling
“Automation is changing the needed workforce skills. The demand for technology skills will rise by 55% by 2030” according to the 2018 McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report Skill Shift: Automation and the future of the workforce.
It turns out that some of our most human characteristics are actually considered skills in the changing workforce. The need for some skills, such as technological as well as social and emotional skills, will rise, even as the demand for others, including physical and manual skills, will fall. In the face of these changes, workers will beed to deepen their existing skill sets or acquire new ones.
MGI estimates 14% of the global workforce may need to switch occupational categories by 2030 because of these automation and other digital changes. Over 60% of the responding executives believe they will need to retrain or replace more than a quarter of their workforce between now and 2023 to cope with changes in automation and digitization.
Automation is changing everything everywhere, but it is not necessarily a doomsday signal. As our technologies develop, so will the workforce. In the near future, we can expect to have more robots working with humans together in complimentary ways.