The rise of the robots needn't mean mass unemployment

Automation will require more skills, not less, writes Stuart Hall.

by Stuart Hall
Last Updated: 01 Sep 2016

The discussion surrounding technology doing the jobs traditionally performed by humans has been ongoing since the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago. But there is a greater concern today regarding the future of employment than there has been at any point since the Luddite Movement of the early 1800s.

Since early 2000, we have witnessed the acceleration of a technological revolution: a radical transformation more comprehensive and more encompassing than anything we have seen before. Already we are experiencing the impact of this with staff reductions in retail (self-checkouts), banking (ATMs) and in the manufacturing sector (robotics) to name but a few.

There is a growing belief that if human involvement is not essential, technology can do a more efficient job. Whilst few doubt that the technological changes we’re experiencing hold great promise, the patterns of employment, production and consumption that could result from them could create major challenges for individuals, businesses and governments.

The changing nature of employment is certainly an important consideration, but it is the widening gap between employment and productivity that provides us with some real clues as to what the future may look like. For at least 60 years following the end of WWII, employment and productivity levels closely tracked each other. Where employment increased so, too, did productivity. In economic terms, productivity was a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It was seen as a measure of progress.

But that picture dramatically changed at the end of the 1990s. By the early 2000s, employment and productivity were no longer mirroring each other - productivity continued to rise strongly but employment levels stagnated. Part of the cause was that the world’s economies, particularly those of developed countries, started to becaome more dynamic. It might also be reasonable to assume that the developments in technology were (and continue to be) largely responsible for both the healthy growth in productivity and the decline in jobs.

The concern for the future of employment was amplified in a recently published study by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Its research suggests that around 7 million jobs will be lost and only 2 million created by 2020 as a result of developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological disruptors. Yet, even taking the WEF data into account, history clearly shows that disruption is not the same as displacement. There may no longer be engineers designing and building steam engines but that has not attributed to the overall rate of unemployment.

What socio-economic factors will ultimately determine how people and technology will best interact. will ultimately determine the relationship between people and technology are not their respective technical capacities but the socio–economic system that embeds and enables those capacities. Technology will restructure labour markets not only by eliminating jobs, but also by creating new types of work that must keep pace with the developing technology. People produce technology and since technology today becomes obsolete at an ever-increasing rate, it will require skilled people to continue new developments while maintaining existing systems.

So the key issue here is that technology will require new labour forms, not less.

The challenge for most business leaders and governments, however, is the potentially widening skills gap. This is not a generalised issue; it can be clearly identified by specific industry, region and occupation.

The solution is three-fold: Individuals will need to take a proactive approach to their career development through continuous learning. Senior executives will need to establish training programmes that address not only their short- and long-term corporate objectives, but also the career aspirations of their employees. Governments must create an environment (both through the education system and in employment) that encourages and assists companies and individuals to achieve their objectives.

But where does it start? Employers claim that it can take months to find the skilled people they need because schools (at both under-graduate and post-graduate levels) are not providing the right programmes to equip students with the skills needed in the advancing digital era. Yet, potential candidates claim that recruiters are too inflexible when it comes to either getting a job or advancing their careers once they have one.

The starting point must be with employers. Instead of steadfastly retaining the objective of finding perfect candidates, they need to be looking for people who could do the job following some training and on-the-job experience. One only needs to look at the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s where less than 15 percent of people in IT jobs had IT-related degrees to see how that can work.

So is concern about the future of employment justified? Invariably, there is a concern when we see levels of unemployment rising. However, society has always evolved, and will continue to do so even in the face of rapidly developing technology. Some jobs will be displaced but, as history has shown us, others will be created. And out of this will emerge further opportunities. Individuals and business leaders simply need to recognise the technology-driven transformations and opportunities that lie ahead and capitalise on them accordingly.

Stuart Hall is a partner at executive search company Tyzack 


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