Automation, Robots and the Future of Work

shutterstock_663951232 - 1000x527For all the history of humankind, the nature and shape of work has evolved, as curiosity and innovation have allowed us to develop tools and technologies that advance nearly all aspects of work and play. In the past, these changes took place over long periods – centuries even. Today though, we measure the pace of technology evolution in years or months. As machines are able to do more and more for us, we find ourselves wondering how the definition of work will evolve and what it means.

More Jobs, Not Less and the Challenges that Creates

The Keynesian vision for a 15-hour workweek may sound wonderful, but in truth, we are a long way from that level of freedom from the “rat race”. In fact, automation is more likely to increase the number of jobs, as a recent Manpower survey found that 87 percent of employers planned to increase or maintain their headcount because of automation.

While employers have plans to grow their labor pools, it may be easier said than done. Today, labor shortages are affecting nearly every industrialized nation; in 2018, consulting firm Deloitte predicted that a skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled in manufacturing through 2028 globally.

How then to resolve the conflict between the need for more workers in highly automated environments with a generation that doesn’t have the skills necessary or isn’t interested in working in manufacturing? For decades, manufacturing jobs were seen as good jobs – where wages and benefits supported a middle-class lifestyle. The good news is that automation and robots can play an important role in giving both companies and workers what they need to succeed.

Getting More Done, Together

Already robots are hard at work on the most tedious of tasks, freeing people from less repetitive and menial work. As robots become more and more a part of the labor pool, the opportunities for work well suited for humans grows – tapping creativity, critical thinking and innovation.

Upskilling and retraining will be important in this new model, and will increase the number of good jobs as 2018’s The Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum reported: “… 133 million new jobs could be created by 2022 if workers receive the necessary training.” Large organizations recognize the need and are stepping up to provide that necessary training, for example, in July 2019, Amazon reported that it plans to spend $700M to retrain one-third of its workforce.

When people and robots work together, manufacturers get more: higher levels of employee retention, satisfaction, performance, throughput and quality.

Good for All

A 2019 study from Oxford Economics, “How Robots Change the World” found that increasing robot installations to 30% above the baseline forecast by 2030 would lead to an extra $4.9 trillion per year to the global economy by 2030. Even more compelling, the report predicts that “robotics dividend”—lower prices for manufactured goods, higher real incomes, and stronger tax revenues – will benefit a much wider population.

As we celebrate Labor Day here in the U.S., a holiday dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers, it worth thinking about the ways in which the nature of work is evolving. I think there is a lot to look forward to and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s next for the workforce. Tweet me @jim_lawton