We’re undergoing a transformative moment in our history. The market today is almost unrecognizable compared to just a decade or two, and the pace of innovation isn’t going to slow down. Of course, not everyone sees that as a positive development…namely, those individuals who are facing the threat of technological unemployment.
“Technological unemployment” describes the process of individuals losing their jobs as a direct result of technology’s advancement. Businesses adopting new cost- and labor-saving technologies is not science fiction, nor is it anything new. In fact, the process is already well-underway in sectors of the economy as diverse as shipping, healthcare, retail, and even the food and beverage industry.
Firms have embraced innovative solutions to increase efficiency and save resources for centuries. Of course, that doesn’t go very far to minimize the anxiety people have about robots taking their jobs. In some peoples’ minds, new technologies are not just suspect, but a genuine existential threat.
Technology is meant to serve humanity…not the other way around. New innovations should be met as a net positive, rather than something we need to fear. So, how realistic are those fears about robots replacing labor, and what can we do?
Automation Replacing Workers
First, we need to recognize that automation won’t impact every industry in the same manner. Some sectors of the economy will see massive job reduction. Others will simply see workers transition to new roles. In some cases, there may even be a net creation of jobs as a result of new opportunities presented by technology.
Traditional bookkeeping and accounting, for instance, are highly vulnerable to automation. At the same time, new positions are created constantly in these fields due to the demands of new technologies. It’s the same for many jobs: transitioning from manual labor to put humans in a more managerial role over automated labor.
Of course, this isn’t going to be a one-to-one transfer. It seems that automation is displacing workers faster than we can find new, better jobs for them to occupy. On a basic level, this makes sense; after all, the point of automation is to reduce costs, and a large chunk of those savings are on labor.
One recent report from Forrester shows that nearly one-third of existing jobs are vulnerable to automation within the next decade. 375 million workers, or 14 percent of the global workforce, could be effectively obsolete by 2030. At the same time, the Forrester report finds that new positions might increase by as little as 13 percent, meaning a 16 percent net loss in the number of positions available to workers. But, just as automation won’t affect all jobs the same, it won’t affect all people the same, either. For example, although women represent only 47 percent of the US workforce, 58 percent of all jobs identified as “high-risk” targets for automation are held by women.
The current state of affairs is a recipe for runaway inequality, and women and minorities will be hit hardest. Couple this with an increasing population, and we’re facing a serious problem.
There’s Opportunities in Automation
I don’t want to give off the impression that the situation is hopeless or bleak. In fact, this could be a fantastic opportunity if we leverage it correctly.
Amazon recently unveiled a new project they’re referring to as the"Upskilling 2025" program. This initiative seeks to retrain 100,000 current employees with the company by the year 2025. And, despite the hefty $700 million cost, the program will likely pay off very quickly.
Every dollar spent on reskilling and training employees today is a dollar saved on recruiting, training, and integrating new workers tomorrow. An existing employee who’s already familiar with the company and culture can pivot into a new role much faster than a new employee can adjust.
Of course, not all those 100,000 workers are guaranteed positions at Amazon. With their new training, though, they will have the skills necessary to compete in the job market and find a new position. Another potential object is that not every company has the same deep pockets as Amazon. That’s true, but just about every company has the resources to offer some level of retraining.
A Mass Movement to Retrain Workers
Retraining is a major part of this initiative, as is helping workers explore new careers that are safer from automation.
Caregiving, for example, demands a hands-on, human approach involving a lot of interpersonal interaction and compassion. It’s a field which is not only safe from automation, but it’s also going to be more in demand with our aging population. First-line management demands creative and on-the-spot decisioning, plus leadership skills, which means it is also safe.
As we begin the retraining process, the natural starting point is with roles most susceptible to replacement. We already mentioned bookkeeping and accounting, but data entry, tax prep, retail sales…these are a few of the jobs that will be first on the technological chopping block. Thus, we should start the reskilling process with workers in these professions.
There are numerous different approaches to this process. At the end of the day, though, we can’t afford to ignore it.
Technological unemployment isn’t an isolated issue. It won’t affect only certain industries; this process will have a profound impact on the global economy…unless we take direct and purposeful action. It’s also not a partisan issue, but we shouldn’t rely on lawmakers to take the wheel on the matter. Instead, the best approach is for private companies to implement their own plans for labor’s obsolescence.
Time is a critical factor here. The sooner we convince private organizations to act on this issue, the better.
Monica Eaton-Cardone is an entrepreneur and business leader with expertise in technology, e-Commerce, risk relativity and payment-processing solutions. She is COO of Chargebacks911 and CIO of its parent company Global Risk Technologies.
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