by Anna Frazzetto

What is the tech industry’s responsibility to talent in the age of automation?

Aug 03, 2017
Artificial IntelligenceIT LeadershipStaff Management

Could our industry become a sector where layoffs are more prevalent than skills shortages?

layoffs laid off downsize job cuts
Credit: Thinkstock

The struggle to find and hire skilled tech professionals is holding at fever pitch for most businesses today. Around the world I have seen employers take inventive and sometimes aggressive approaches to finding the data, UX, cloud, security, Web, mobile and AI experts their busy IT organizations need. Most recently, a client of mine hosted a global hackathon focused on new product and service development. While the technologists who came to the event focused on the issues and innovation at hand, recruiters and hiring managers were also out in force looking to identify candidates in the unusually target-rich environment.

What struck me as interesting is how many of these talented tech pros can and do work on technologies that are beginning to reduce and eliminate tech jobs. Take for example, cloud developers and solution experts. The level of automation being built into cloud environments today means that fewer and fewer tech experts will be needed to build and manage cloud systems. A recent study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, “The Future of Employment,” found that “47% of workers in America have jobs at high risk of potential automation.”

For employers, could this be good news? Does that mean the frenzied push for talent could be drawing to an end or see a steep downturn one day soon as capabilities like robotics process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) reduce the number of technologists needed to get work done? The fact is, it may give the tech industry some relief in the near future around help and service desk support but the downside could be downsizing. We are already seeing substantial tech layoffs in geographies like India where the economy grew tremendously with the help of companies like Infosys and Wipro that specialize in providing outsourced tech support services. With automation rapidly reducing the number of basic updates support teams have to perform on software systems or with customers, fewer tech support workers are needed. The New York Times reported that in India “50 to 70 percent of workers’ skills would be irrelevant by 2020” according to a study conducted by Indian technology trade groups and McKinsey India. U.S. companies, which have been outsourcing a substantial amount of tech support for many years, will likely have a buffer from the heavy layoffs India could see.  

As we look at the potential of AI and machine learning, it’s important as business leaders and an industry we recognize the evolution we are seeing. The next wave of tech disruption powered by AI will allow companies to expand the breath of their capabilities. It was the same with the evolution from the COBOL programming language 30 years ago to PASCAL and then to C++. Each language advancement allowed for greater automation within a software program, which lead to greater ingenuity and possibility with technology and across businesses. The same is true for machine learning and AI. Today’s more sophisticated tools and capabilities, from robotics to machine learning, are creating opportunities that allow us to do more and expand our business scope. The challenge for business and tech leaders, who know the powerful advantage of tech talent and ingenuity, is to help tech teams and work evolve alongside the technologies they are building. If we don’t, we risk a precarious future for the workforce we are fighting to recruit and retain today.

The tech industry’s responsibility to talent

What is our responsibility to today’s workers and computer science students who we are encouraging to “get technology skills” and join an industry of opportunity and innovation? We need bright minds to push us forward in areas like machine learning, data analytics, RPA and ERPA (Enhanced Robotics Process Automation), but the greater their brilliance and the stronger their work, the more they will help reduce future tech jobs. Is it possible that the tech industry could become a sector where layoffs are more prevalent than skills shortages?

Ways to create tech job stability

The creation of today’s digital marketplace over the last several years have given tech workers a powerful kind of stability. If you had solid core tech skills, such as development and programming, and were a good contributor, you could find work. That kind of stability can continue if businesses focus on the automation of work but not jobs. As basic system work that was once manual (human-driven) is automated, businesses should consider taking the following steps to ensure they remain attractive employers to talented tech workers:

  1. Welcome talent into the automation process and vision: If automation eliminates tedious work and gives employees the chance to work on more inventive, strategic and challenging opportunities, it’s a win for all. The key to ensuring employees understand that automation is an opportunity for them is transparency. Businesses that communicate their automation strategy, make employees a part of it and show employees a path post automation, do not have to worry about morale or even layoffs. Strong employees will understand the change, embrace it and adapt with new opportunities.
  2. Embrace skills training and advancement: The rapid pace of technology advancement makes it hard for businesses, much less tech workers, to keep pace with emerging skills. Businesses that make learning and skill development a part of their commitment to tech workers are building a loyal and adaptive innovation force. Rather than continuously hunting for tech workers with the latest emerging skills, top technology companies are incubating talent within their walls and helping already gifted tech minds reshape their skills with the changing technology landscape.
  3. Focus on automating work not the jobs: The better businesses are at focusing their automation message on “eliminating basic work versus eliminating jobs,” the stronger their employer brand will be. Employers that are known to want an extremely lean tech workforce will have a very hard time competing for the skilled innovation workers who want to be a part of creating disruptive new business possibilities with technology.
  4. Prepare for a new C-level role: The incorporation of AI across businesses could bring an unprecedented era of disruption to the tech workforce and to the business at large. Just as the CDO role has joined many c-suites worldwide in recent years to manage the tremendous amount of digital disruption and change businesses are confronting, Harvey Nash anticipates many businesses will add a strategic executive leadership role around AI in the coming years. Perhaps Chief AI Officer? Or Chief Re-Learning Officer? The technological and human complexities that AI presents businesses and society will take considerable focus and strategic thought. It will take leaders who understand the technology but also how to retrain a workforce to managed and advance the IT environments of tomorrow.

Technology continues to be the great disruptor in business today, and the tech industry needs to consider how its work in emerging fields like AI and machine learning can and will disrupt its own workforce. The imagination required to innovate and disrupt takes talent. The question we all need to answer as an industry is this: How are we both engaging top tech talent today while simultaneously retraining and preparing that same talent for the changing opportunities within the highly automated and AI-driven workplace of tomorrow? It’s not an easy question to answer but it will be our responsibility to answer it in the years ahead.