Job automation was hotly debated by speakers at the CIPD’s Festival of Work conference this week, with many agreeing that it will replace many middle-skilled occupations. But this shouldn’t be seen as a threat to the human workforce, as Ashleigh Webber reports.
Until very recently, job automation and the idea that artificial intelligence (AI) would put swathes of the workforce out of work seemed distant concerns. However, with Amazon recently rolling out 200,000 robots across 50 warehouses and two NHS hospitals in London introducing software to automate certain back office functions, the concept of a “robot workforce” appears to be rapidly becoming reality.
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This was the consensus at the CIPD’s Festival of Work this week, where the agenda was dominated by sessions considering the impact, implementation and ethics of job automation. And rightly so, with minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility Kelly Tolhurst stating that one in seven jobs would be replaced by automation over the next two decades.
But while some workers, especially those in more manual and routine roles, will be worried about job security as the technology becomes more viable for organisations, there are reasons for optimism: not only will it allow humans to take more creative roles, technology will also open up opportunities for groups who currently struggle to access the workplace.
“AI will bring millions and millions of people that never had access to the job market, many of whom have great talents, but they never had the opportunity to put them on display,” said Garry Kasparov, chair of the Human Rights Foundation and a former chess world champion who competed against IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997.
“Now AI can help blind people hear what a machine sees and deaf people to see what a machine hears. There’s so many opportunities and there’s a new army of talented people that could actually become part of the new employment landscape.”
Kelly Tolhurst said there was a need to ensure that work is “opened up” to everybody – and the workforce is now more diverse than ever, partly thanks to tech.
“Compared with 2010 there are now more than two million more people aged 50 and over in work, with 9,000 disabled people joining the workforce in the last five years,” she said. “Now we need workplaces where people can be their best mothers, fathers, carers and everybody else.”
Hollowing out the workforce
The “hollowing out” of the workforce will begin with middle-skilled, routine roles, explained Vicky Pryce, chief economic adviser at the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
“But the question is: what other jobs are we going to be able to create?” she asked, noting that replacing humans with machines has, so far, not translated into productivity gains.
It’s widely understood that the jobs of the future will need to incorporate human skills, such as creativity, empathy and critical-thinking, yet Kasparov claimed only around 4% of jobs in the US required human creativity. This proportion needed to be much higher to offer opportunities to people whose roles were being replaced by automation.
“What does this tell us? Ninety-six per cent of jobs are ‘zombie jobs’. They’re already dead – they just don’t know it,” he said.
“It’s not that machines are getting more human, it’s that we create so many, well paid, jobs that require machine-like qualities.
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“Unless we view AI as an opportunity to unleash our creativity, all jobs will be in danger… Unfortunately AI will destroy jobs before it can create new ones.”
But removing mundane tasks and automating the most “boring” parts of the job would ultimately create a more engaged, happier workforce, suggested Kate Davies, chief executive of Notting Hill Genesis, a developer that provides homes for lower-income families in London. She said she hoped automation would allow staff to use their “distinctly” human skills, such as spending more time engaging with customers.
Reskilling is imperative
Employers needed to act now to prevent widespread job losses, suggested Sally Eaves, a member of the Forbes Technology Council. While new technology will create countless jobs in areas such as data science, digital transformation and process automation, for example, many existing roles were in danger of soon becoming “redundant” – including accountants, lawyers and administrative workers.
Eaves highlighted research from the World Economic Forum that found more than half of staff will need up-skilling or reskilling by 2022 – just three years away.
“We really are at the reskilling imperative,” she said. “Emotional intelligence has never been so important… art skills and creativity will be centre-stage, in addition to technical skills.”
Once an organisation has decided on where it wants to implement AI or automation, embedding the technology will involve a significant change management exercise for HR.
Ninety-six per cent of jobs are ‘zombie jobs’. They’re already dead – they just don’t know it. It’s not that machines are getting more human, it’s that we create so many, well paid, jobs that require machine-like qualities” – Gary Kasparov
Cultural change, legacy systems and clear communication with staff are among the many factors that need to be considered during any period of uncertainty, explained Andy Young, managing director at consultancy Accenture. He said 56% of UK businesses were experiencing disruption in some way.
“Turning a business around is a bit like turning a cargo ship around – it’s difficult… Each CEO needs to balance the needs of today and tomorrow,” he explained.
For transformation to be a success, organisations needed three key ingredients: a clear vision with a believable purpose; leadership at all levels, not just from the senior team; and a strong sense of trust.
“Eighty-five per cent of transformations fail because of legacy trust issues before the transformation has even begun,” he claimed. “It’s reciprocal between the leader and the individual and it takes time [to develop].”
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Communication is a big part of this, especially as many workers are concerned about the ethical implications of job automation. Kate Davies used the Cambridge Analytica scandal as an example of the types of concerns employees had about technology.
“If you want [staff] to do the job well, you have to treat them well,” she advised. “AI is alarming to many people, so we have to reassure them.
“Some technology has been used for evil… if the workforce is not critical of it and empowered to challenge wrongdoing, then bad things will happen. There is a responsibility on all of us to make sure that the powerful interests don’t abuse us.”
Many staff did not have a background in technology or digital development, so using jargon would not help them get on board with an organisation’s automation programme, according to Sally Eaves.
“Every time we turn on the news at the moment, it’s all about tech for bad… people are naturally quite resistant to change and scare stories in the media don’t help the situation,” she said.
Some technology has been used for evil… if the workforce is not critical of it and empowered to challenge wrongdoing, then bad things will happen. There is a responsibility on all of us to make sure that the powerful interests don’t abuse us” – Kate Davies, Genesis
But being transparent and honest with staff about the changes they are likely to see will help reassure staff, said Suzanne Harlow, chief executive at fashion brand Jack Wills.
“People are becoming much more vocal than before and I think that’ll only increase,” she said. “But people want to see progress and many understand there needs to be tough decisions to get there.”
Although it seems widespread automation is still a long way off, those speaking about automation at the conference agreed preparing staff for this inevitability was vital.
“I’d really encourage you to engage with your people on the future of work and be honest about the skills that will be needed,” said Young.
“Don’t think about uncertainty and disruption as a problem – think of it as an opportunity.”
Kasparov’s one-off comments about the blind and deaf are interesting, but they do not speak to the central issue at all – the kind of deception one might expect from a chess master.