Automation is transforming economies and societies, so U.S. businesses must manage the change and make sure that their employees are able to adapt. A new report looks at the workforce management issues and makes recommendations on how employers, educators, the government, and others can respond to the challenges and opportunities posed by robotics and artificial intelligence. The report, “The Future Is Now: Workforce Opportunities and the Coming TIDE,” was produced this summer by Littler Mendelson P.C.‘s (Littler) Workplace Policy Institute with Prime Policy Group, a Washington, D.C.-based organization (see free download below).
Littler is the world’s largest labor and employment law firm representing employers.
The “TIDE” in the report title refers to “technology-induced displacement of employees,” but the study notes that people should not just be concerned about automation taking jobs. The report’s authors have presented their findings at a series of technology events nationwide.
Discussion and study
“The report emanated from a roundtable that Littler hosted in November 2017 that brought together 40 experts in science, business, human resources, and the law,” said Garry G. Mathiason, shareholder at Littler and co-author of the report. “We asked the roundtable participants to describe the future workforce and workplace and what effects were likely from technology.”
“The central lesson that came out of that program is that there would be significant displacement, but also that more jobs will very likely be created than taken away,” he said. “The critical challenge facing the U.S. and industry worldwide is a gap between the current skills of people displaced and those required for the new work opportunities created by technology.”
“We had extensive discussion regarding whether the net effect of automation was the creation or destruction of jobs,” Mathiason told Robotics Business Review. “The consensus we came to was twofold: First, that at least during the next 10 to 20 years, the historical pattern would continue with technology overall creating more jobs, not less, and second, a major initiative is needed to train and prepare people for the new jobs created, especially workers likely to be displaced.”
Emma Coalition to educate workforce stakeholders
Littler and Prime Policy Group have formed the Emma Coalition, a non-partisan group dedicated to informing employers and policymakers about the issues and potential solutions around TIDE. The Emma Coalition is being led by Michael J. Lotito, co-chair of Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute.
The coalition’s long-term goal is to organize a nationwide effort and partnership among small, midsize, and large American businesses and the organizations that represent them — including representatives of organized labor, non-profits, and research and academic institutions, as well as those of elected officials — to prepare the workforce for the coming TIDE through education, training, and engagement with policymakers.
The Emma Coalition is inviting to join its efforts a wide range of organizations that understand the challenges of automation, embrace the coalition’s vision and mission, and are prepared to invest in its objectives for the betterment of their organizations, the American worker, and the country.
“There’s a tremendous need for leadership, urgency, and a bipartisan approach to dealing with the rising TIDE.”
—Garry G. Mathiason, shareholder at Littler and co-author of workforce report
“There’s a tremendous need for leadership, urgency, and a bipartisan approach to dealing with the rising TIDE,” Mathiason declared. “While technology continues to create more jobs than are lost, this time, the speed of change is dramatically faster. During most of the Industrial Revolution, we had years to prepare the workforce for change. Now, change is occurring in two to three years, and sometimes within months.”
He noted that robotics and AI are augmenting human capabilities and replacing people in some roles, requiring swift adaptation and a need for continuing education. Automation is also being driven by demand in response to labor shortages for both skilled and unskilled jobs.
Cobots plus jobs
According to the Workplace Policy Institute and Prime Policy Group report, the current shift in how work is being done because of automation is as significant as the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions that preceded it.
Low-wage, repetitive jobs, such as in food processing, could be improved with robotics, the report noted. In addition, not only can exoskeletons help people with limited mobility, but they can also make it easier to move heavy or bulky items.
As good as collaborative robots and AI are, there are many tasks that humans are still better at performing, such as subtle forms of object recognition and unscripted manipulation, explained Mathiason.
“The paradox is that you can often get better results when robot capabilities assist humans than with either alone,” he said. “Productivity can often be improved by robots performing more repetitive functions of a job, while the human worker is able to spend more time providing insight, creativity, and social skills.”
“Humans benefit from tens of thousands of years of evolution, such that robotics and AI have yet been able to fully duplicate the marvels of the human hand,” Mathiason continued. “Humans have inherent learning capabilities that enable them to adjust and often acquire new skills beyond what can economically be currently provided, even by advanced machine learning.”
For instance, even attorneys could benefit from automation, Mathiason acknowledged.
“AI will change what we do as lawyers — we’ll use our time better,” he said. “It will make the work more cerebral. As many of the formulaic legal processes associated with standard pleadings, discovery, and basic research get increasingly and better performed by technology, lawyers will be able to spend more time focusing on issue identification, creative problem solving, anticipating, and adjusting to the emotional and social forces associated with the case, as well as applying human intuition. Nonetheless, the power and importance of AI should not be underestimated.”
“Currently, one of AI’s great support functions involves predictive analytics,” according to Mathiason. “Vast amounts of data can be quickly analyzed for patterns and then associated with outcomes. The entire history of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has been reviewed, and the identified voting patterns provide nearly an 80% accurate prediction of future court decisions. This is slightly higher than the best human predictions by attorneys routinely practicing before the Supreme Court.”
The Workplace Policy Institute’s takeaway is that robots and many forms of AI will improve productivity, enhance human performance, and create new jobs, many of which did not previously exist.
To take advantage of this new era, workers must be willing to engage in lifelong learning, according to Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute. There must be opportunities for people to obtain retraining, especially regarding skills needed to master the jobs likely to be created by technology.
“What we see from our client base is the tremendous need for employers to be more involved in helping their current workforces prepare for future needs,” Mathiason said. “Currently, only 25% of employers provide such training opportunities within their organizations. This should go up as employers increasingly recognize the benefits of meeting future skill needs, largely from their existing workforce.”
“Additionally, the social responsibilities of being a 21st century employer encourage a lifelong learning partnership with their employees,” he said.
“There’s an assumption that future jobs will require extraordinary technological skills, a Ph.D., or years of advanced study,” Mathiason disclosed. “While such jobs do and will exist, many of the needed skills can be learned while working through training or programs fully or partially supported or provided by private employers.”
He cited as an example an entry-level software development certificate that Microsoft designed for people with no prior experience in computer programming.
“It consists of 12 bite-size courses that are eight to 16 hours each, followed by a final capstone project. Working eight to 10 hours a week, the program can be completed in less than six months — it’s designed for workers who have a full-time job while they are in the program,” Mathiason said. “And that’s just one example. GreatSchools.org recently published a list of 42 high-paying jobs that do not require a college degree, ranging from carpenter to dental hygienist to Web developer.”
With great demand at the top and bottom ends of the job scale, as well as people working past traditional retirement age, there’s a place for robots to be used in combination with humans, he said.
“This explains the growth in the collaborative robot industry,” observed Mathiason. “I recently visited Rethink Robotics, producers of Baxter and Sawyer, two of the most popular cobots. Surprisingly, many of the new orders are coming from companies using cobots to meet a current labor shortage.”
“The needed training to work with industrial cobots is usually quickly learned. Rethink has a ‘train a trainer’ program on how to work with its robots. It can directly provide employees with such training in as little as a day,” Mathiason said. “You still need to figure out what you could do together, and there’s more coming.”
Workforce agility as a competitive advantage
“While it is encouraging that more college and university students in the U.S. are becoming STEM graduates, the demand for these people far exceeds the supply,” Mathiason noted. “American companies have the advantage of being able to recruit worldwide.”
“The immediate need to fill the existing workforce can also be satisfied by community colleges, online training, and organizations such as the ARM Institute,” he said. “There has been tremendous growth in online platforms and companies like Upwork, which match technology projects with people worldwide who have the exact experience needed.”
“In the longer term, we need to encourage more people to go into robotics, AI, and advanced automation,” Mathiason added. “It is encouraging to see the exponential growth of high school robotics clubs and tournaments such as the VEX Robotics Competition correlating with student interest in STEM courses and careers. However, we should not overlook the importance and need for vocational training.”
“There needs to be a better correlation between corporate needs and filling the demand with worker retraining programs; online learning; targeted university, college, and community college courses; and other resources,” he said.
TIDE and the importance of improving worker retraining
In other countries, the Workplace Policy Institute report notes, governments have taken the lead in preparing their workforces for the TIDE. Ideally, the same would be true in the U.S., because the government’s wide perspective and access to funding makes it best-positioned to help lead worker-retraining initiatives with academia and industry, stated the report.
But in the absence of strong government action, the report concludes, the task of improving worker retraining will fall to America’s employers.
“This choice has already been made by China and several other countries around the world,” said Mathiason. “If the U.S. wants to maintain its leadership role and national security, it must expand development of education around automation and robotics.”
Emma recruiting and a Workplace Policy Institute sequel session
Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute is planning to hold another roundtable on the future workforce on Nov. 12 in San Francisco, Mathiason shared.
“We’ll focus on what has transpired over the past year, where we have made progress, and if there have been changes in the ways we use technology and prepare for the TIDE,” he said.
A rising tide of technologically induced displacement of employment can lift enterprises, but only if they address the change immediately and collectively, said the Workplace Policy Institute and Prime Policy Group report.
“I’ve often predicted that the No. 1 initiative for human resources departments in the coming decade will be meeting this skills transition requirement,” Mathiason said. “Many of our best businesses would greatly prefer to transition people to new positions within their organizations as opposed to layoffs.”
The key is employer-provided and sponsored retraining and lifelong learning programs for the current workforce, the report concluded. Meanwhile, the future also requires the improvement of K-12 educational programs to embrace and promote learning about robotics and AI, and other forms of advanced technology, leading to STEM careers.
“Today, there is low unemployment and a growing shortage of skilled workers,” Mathiason said. “This requires an investment in the developable skills of the current workforce.”
“For example, Accenture eliminated 17,000 back-office jobs through automation, without laying off a single person,” he noted. “The combination of robotics, AI, automation and human talent, creativity, and learning is not only an optimal goal; it is also a business and national necessity.”
For more information on the Emma Coalition, contact Michael Lotito, head of Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute.