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Latest News The robots are coming. But will they steal our jobs?

December 4th 2017

There has been a lot of hype in the media of late that robots will soon steal our jobs. The truth is – they will. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Labour shortages and dwindling productivity levels have created a demand for increasing mechanisation. And while it is inevitable that some jobs will be displaced, it is also true that technology can create demand for new capabilities and new jobs and it can cause existing jobs to evolve and shift in a way that benefits workers.

The robots are coming.  But will they steal our jobs?

History has proved time and time again that along with any technological advancement, new skills, new industries and new jobs are created as a result. So our concern should not be whether robots will take our jobs, but how do we prepare for their integration into the workplace and develop the new skills required to work with them?

Back in the late 15th Century, Queen Elizabeth I refused a patent for a knitting machine because of the poverty it could cause.  The lack of patent however, didn’t stop factories from adopting the machine and weaving technology ended up creating more jobs for weavers as a result. By the end of the 19th century, there were four times as many factory weavers as there had been in 1830.

So how was that possible?  Well, a factory that saves money on labour through automation can lower their prices, which in turn can make their products more appealing and create an increase in demand.  This in turn can lead to growth for the company and as a result… more workers.

Is it any wonder then, that with increased productivity and reduced expenditure at the forefront of most business leader’s minds, many industries are tempted by automation and see the benefits in replacing manual labour with machines.  However, the anticipated job displacement as a result is not all that it seems.  Labour shortages in sectors such as farming and the food industry have necessitated alternative solutions to be found.  When labour is difficult to attract, automation is a natural solution.

The problem is, robots are not very good at fine manipulation – particularly tasks involving small, fiddly or fragile parts.  If you or I pick something up, we adjust our grip depending on how the object feels.  Robots do not have this capability yet.  So while some individual activities may be at risk from automation, people will still be needed to complement the work that machines do and vice versa.  In fact, a recent report from McKinsey found that for businesses to truly reap the benefits of automation, people and technology need to work hand in hand.

Such collaboration is already evident in companies like Amazon and Ocado who both use robots in their warehouses to help human workers fulfil customer orders.  So successful has this partnership been at Ocado that they can now fulfil a 50-item order in under five minutes – something that used to take about two hours at human-only facilities.  And while robotic technology is helping both companies increase their productivity – it has not been at the expense of workers.  Ocado’s workforce has doubled in the last five years and Amazon is growing at such at rate, it will soon open a second headquarters in North America with up to 50,000 new jobs.

The fear that robots will replace human jobs is inevitable if you only view technological advancements in the context of the current world.  History has told us that jobs evolve and they have done so for centuries so it’s safe to presume the jobs we hold now won’t look the same in the future.  When the internet became mainstream in the 90’s, who could have imagined the new careers that would develop as a result.  Jobs in web development, social media, software engineering, App development and the like are quite popular today, but only 30 years ago they were unheard of.  Who knows what the next 30 years will look like?

While it’s difficult to predict the new types of jobs that will open up as a result of automation, it is possible to foresee which roles are likely to be affected.  Workers need to be proactive and prepare to retrain or learn new skills so that they can take up the new roles that are created.  Having the insight to recognize when a job is likely to be coming to an end is key.  According to McKinsey almost all employees will see some of their work become automated, but only about 5 percent of jobs will be completely automated, leaving great potential for humans to not only keep their jobs, but to also become more productive than ever.

For businesses – robotics can also open up new possibilities for the creation of totally new business models.  Looking back at the Ocado example, the online supermarket giant is now offering its robotic warehouse solution – the Ocado Smart Platform to other retailers who need an “end to end” system for selling stuff online.  Diversification such as this, demonstrates how companies can create new jobs, not just for themselves but potentially for their customers and suppliers also.

As more companies follow suit, it’s important that the machines are created in a way that generates commercial payback and market understanding from day one.  In doing so, the risk and cost of producing autonomous robotics will be less overwhelming and the benefits to all realised sooner.

Ultimately, robots could very well be the biggest job creators simply because automation will free us up to do new work.  What we do with that free time is up to us.  Automation will not happen overnight but one thing is for sure – we need to be able to adapt our education and employment so that we can take full advantage of the impending technological revolution.  Because the increased efficiencies from robotics will inevitably lead to more productivity growth which in turn leads to higher living standards as a result of higher wages, lower pricing of goods and services, and an overall greater variety of products and services on offer.

So whilst it is true that robots will alter the way we work, if we take responsibility to ensure our employees and future generations are equipped for the changing roles, the benefits to business, our economy – and to us – could be enormous.

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