Here’s a Swedish mine worker’s reaction to impending automation: “I’m not really worried. There are so many jobs in this mine that even if this job disappears, they will have another one. The company will take care of us.”
Germany’s experience with intensive use of robots since 1995 tells a similar story of job stability. When robots are introduced into a German manufacturing firm, largely automobile plants, this increases the chances that workers will keep a job at the firm, although many of them perform different tasks there. When German manufacturing firms deploy robots, they don’t displace existing workers. They do, however, create fewer new jobs, resulting in, over time, a decline in overall employment in manufacturing. Since there are fewer new manufacturing jobs, workers seek and find work in other industries. As a result, robot use hasn’t produced an overall decline in German employment.
There’s nothing preventing U.S. companies from doing the same
Indeed, Accenture shows how it can be done. They automated 17,000 back office jobs over an 18-month period without displacing a single worker. CEO Richard Lamb says, “We are fortunate enough to reskill and reposition them.”
Amazon has done the same thing with the installation of bin-stacking robots in its warehouses. Some workers took company courses on how to operate robots. Others were repositioned to receiving stations where they sorted merchandise into bins. Amazon’s operations chief put the outcome simply, “The people didn’t go anywhere.”
This kind of win-win transition takes careful planning. A number of consulting studies have provided some guidelines for companies. Accenture recommends that companies start now, increasing their efforts to retrain people for new skills, redesigning work to fit the humans who will do the job, and developing needed talent through an improved skills pipeline. For example, AT&T launched a retraining program to fill jobs in cloud computing, data science and coding and found, during one four-month period in 2016, that the retrained employees filled half of all technology management jobs at the company.
Amazon’s Career Choice program is another example of this. It pays 95 percent of tuition and fees for employees “to earn certificates and associate degrees in high-demand occupations such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies, nursing, and many other fields.”
Pearson says that 20 percent of all workers are in declining occupations and 10 percent are in growing occupations. There will be increased demand for interpersonal skills, including teaching, social perceptiveness, service orientation and persuasion, and higher-order cognitive skills such as complex problem solving, originality, fluency of ideas and active learning. They encourage companies to re-design jobs “to pair uniquely human skills with the productivity gains from technology to boost demand for jobs.” The idea is to supplement, not supplant human skills, just as in education where technology supplements but does not replace the crucial role of the teacher.
McKinsey echoes these points, saying companies should prepare for the transition by scaling and reimagining job retraining and workforce skills development, including providing on-the-job training and opportunities to workers to upgrade their skills.
But these problems are larger than any one company
McKinsey recommends an important role for government in matching workers to jobs to improve labor mobility, maintaining robust economic growth to support job creation, including increased infrastructure investments, and providing income and transition support to workers, including retraining programs, unemployment insurance, public assistance in finding work, and portable benefits that follow workers between jobs.
History shows that, in the long run, technological advances do not create unemployment, but they do change the nature of the work that is available. Fewer agricultural worker are needed to raise crops, so new workers move to jobs in manufacturing and service industries. That transition was enabled through the far-sighted progressive thinking of policymakers and educators who developed the U.S. system of universal education, producing the world’s most productive literate, and numerate workforce.
The OECD estimates that 65 percent of children today will do jobs that haven’t even been developed. We need to train tomorrow’s workers in the general skills that they can use flexibly to fill the ever-changing job demands of an AI-intensive workplace. We need to equip them with the skills they need to be lifelong learners who will not be afraid to change. But they need the reassurance that if they are willing to change, there will be a place for them in our nation’s workplaces.