Are robots really going to steal our jobs?
PwC analysis suggests that a third of UK and German workers will be at risk by 2030, but other research claims that robots are job creators. We look at both sides of the debate
Automation is nothing new. Industries all over the world have been subject to advances in technology over the course of centuries, even millennia.
Such advances through history, however, have often been met with resistance, especially when human capital is on the line in the short term. Indeed, being dubbed a Luddite stretches back to the early 1800s when handloom weavers protested against the mechanisation of the textiles trade.
While the immediate threat to livelihoods was no doubt a valid cause for Luddite angst, history has shown the Industrial Revolution led to enormous economic expansion and subsequent net gain of jobs versus those initially displaced by machinery.
So the questions begs, if history is to repeat itself again, should we really be worried about the latest wave of automation technology?
Fast-forward to 2017 and the world is an unrecognisable place compared to the 19th century. What was rapid in terms of technological progress during the Industrial Revolution seems pedestrian compared to what is commonly called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The idea of a machine skilled enough to create textiles was alien in pre-industrial factories - the idea of machines talking to other machines probably a dream deriving from a generous dose of opium.
Rise of the machines?
One commonality between automation today and in the Luddite era is that some industries’ human workforces appear to be at greater risk than others.
PwC has released research claiming that up to 30 percent of UK jobs (10.43 million) could potentially be at risk by 2030, with this rising to 35 percent in Germany and 38 percent in the USA. Japan, interestingly, is found to be at 21 percent.
Much of this risk is carried by a group of sectors that includes transportation and storage (where 56 percent of jobs are at risk), manufacturing (46 percent), wholesale/retail (44 percent) and admin (37 percent).
Has the Luddite fallacy finally come true? PwC does include some disclaimers, and ultimately concludes that the net impact of automation on total employment remains unclear. Indeed, it says that “new automation technologies in areas like AI and robotics will both create some totally new jobs in the digital technology area and, through productivity gains, generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of existing kinds, primarily in services sectors that are less easy to automate”.
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Other research carries a wholly more optimistic outlook from the outset. The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors and job seeker and recruiting site CV Library presents a fundamentally different outlook to the likes of PwC.
Their studies reveal that more than 63 percent of the 1,000 UK industry professionals surveyed say that they have never witnessed job cuts due to automation or robot takeover. More than a third revealed that this had actually led to the creation of more jobs in their organisations.
Further still, CIEHF and CV Library say that nearly three quarters of professionals hold the view that they and other workers are being scare mongered by negative coverage on robots and automation technology. While half admit that there is resistance to implanting newly automated processes, common belief appears to be that such resistance is misguided.
So what can be done to allay these fears? The same research claims that nearly 80 percent of manufacturers feel the need for greater efforts in promoting the benefits of new technology in the workplace. Nearly half of all industry professionals state their business fails to communicate these benefits, especially to those frontline staff who may feel the most threatened.
This would seem the most sensible place to start, along with some meaningful joined up collaboration between commerce and governments both in the UK and across Europe to address skills deficits.
According to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, Europe’s top five skill shortage occupations are IT professionals, medical doctors, STEM professionals, nurses and midwives and teachers. However, the picture varies from one country to another. For example, all EU countries barring Finland lack IT workers, while Belgium, Greece, Spain, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal have no shortage of teachers.
So while the question of whether robots and automation will significantly displace humans may still be up for debate, there is little doubt that workforces need to be suitably developed in order to maximise benefit from emerging technologies. Failure to do this, and the Luddite fallacy may one day ring true.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”