Will you be automated out of a job?

With more and more businesses streamlining their processes using technology, job automation is a risk for many workers. David Leen explores how businesses are dealing with this, and which types of jobs are more at risk.

You may be glad to hear this is a relatively short blog on what is a relatively big topic – the automation of jobs. I was in the McDonalds on Cannon Street last week and I haven’t been into a McDonalds for quite some time (no, really!), and my goodness the world has changed. I walked in and it felt a bit unfamiliar, I was confronted by what looked like the world’s biggest iPad screen with the more familiar McDonalds menu. I selected water and a salad (maybe not…) and up popped a contactless payment pad, I took my card out, paid, and had a collection number to pick up my order and waited in line. I could see my number moving down the queue, a lot like Argos, and then a chap handed me my bag and off I trotted. Wow, it had been largely self-service, it had been easy and dare I say fast. This is the future of fast-food.

Through the 70s, 80s and 90s there was an utopia painted where robots and computers would do the grunt work that we didn’t want to do, making our lives less complicated and our jobs more interesting, and providing a lot more leisure time. But that hasn’t happened in the way we thought. I think now this is a new age of automation, and the press in the last few months has been trying to make sense of the pace of automation. I have met two insurers and one bank this month who have implemented robotics and AI into their customer operations, and been able to reduce headcount. One of those firms is feverishly looking at where else it can implement the same technology. I asked one of the senior directors how quickly he thought the investment would be returned, expecting the usual prosaic answer of 2 to 3 years or “it’s difficult to say” and he said firmly by Christmas; it’s an 8 month payback. These are becoming easier decisions to make particularly where it can positively impact a firm in the same financial year. MIT refer to it as the second machine age.

You can see this in retail stores with self-service tills, drive-thru outlets, self-service banks and that’s not even mentioning online experiences. When was the last time you queued at a bank to talk to someone? Look at driverless cars, what does this hold for the future for truck-drivers?

This leaves the more tricky question around what happens to these legions of individuals who are being automated out of jobs, the common answer is re-train or move them onto more interesting work. This is a lot easier said that done and the volumes of people make the process expensive with an imprecise outcome (unlike robotics and AI). I met with a retail bank’s director of operations and he told me that his bank were retraining 1500 people over a 18 month period. He said this is partly because of regulatory changes, partly because they had been traditionally been ignored when it came to L&D, but really because the work they had done didn’t exist in the same way and in his words “we can’t just have them tapping away keying in bits of data, they need to do something more productive and we have a duty of care to them”. That’s admirable. He also added that he wasn’t sure all would make the cut.

We have carried out a number of projects in the past year where we have injected graduates into specific departments within Financial Services firms. The companies themselves have been keen to refresh teams, bring new thinking in and challenge the status quo. With one of our clients, one of our Grovelands’ graduates has been nominated for a company-wide award for spotting something that could be done better. To him it was blindingly obvious, but as the line manager told me, we would have never seen it. If I catch up with you sometime for a coffee, I will tell you what he did.

So how will this play out? I saw a slightly chilling report that said by 2050 the only people who will be able to earn a good salary will those who have creative thought, can innovate, make decisions or have a specialist, highly-sought after or rare skill. If you are unable to do many or any of these and are essentially a do-er then you will either be out of work, or will be on minimum wage and unlikely to get out of cycle of poverty. Very Orwellian.

So because there has to be a flip side to the future of automation, I thought I would leave you with this. There was a stat last year that 1 in 3 jobs were at risk of automation in the next 20 years, that still leaves 2 in 3 jobs or 66% that aren’t. The pace of change creates opportunity whether that is in portfolio work that my son is starting whilst he is at college, or in looking at online businesses where the government has relaxed the income tax thresholds in the last budget. These fledgling businesses will grow and create a number of things including jobs.

Maybe Norway is the beacon of light, it has one of the highest GDP figures in the world but averages the shortest working week for people at just 33 hours. The one thing I can guarantee is that if I write this blog again in a year’s time, the world will have changed again.

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