Survey: 75% of U.S. Workers Think Their Jobs are Safe from Automation
December 20, 2019      

Most U.S. workers feel that their jobs are relatively safe from automation in the next decade, according to a new survey. But some questions remain about whether workers understand the difference between the terms ‘robots’ or ‘automation’, which can imply artificial-intelligence algorithms that automate tasks within an office.

In an October 2019 survey, SYKES and Pollfish surveyed 1,500 workers across the U.S. to ask them questions related to automation and the future of work. Results from the questions show much optimism from workers about the role of robotics and automation and how it will help them in their jobs, rather than replace them outright.

Results from the survey showed:

  • More than 75% said they do not view their jobs as being at risk of elimination due to new automation technologies anytime within the next decade.
  • A majority (70.87%) of those surveyed do not know anyone personally who has lost their jobs due to new automation technologies, and only 4.53% personally know more than five people who have lost jobs.
  • When asked what they think of when they hear the words “automation technologies” or “robots”, 67% said they “think of tools/machines/software that could assist me with tasks and make my job more efficient” rather than tools that could take their job.
  • Of those who work in manufacturing or warehousing jobs, only 6.67% (11 people) reported job loss due to automation.
  • Almost three-fourths (72.53%) said they would be even more effective in their job if they worked with automation technologies, representing an interest in human-automation collaboration.

There is some concern on the horizon, however. While 95% of those surveyed have not lost a job due to automation, 37% of those workers said they do worry about this. In terms of the impact of automation in 2020, 53% said they expected a bit more of the workload to be handled by automation, compared with 31% who said they expected “significantly more of the workload” to be handled by automation technologies.

At the moment, the impact of automation programs, whether robots in factories, or AI-based software automation in the office, hasn’t really been felt yet. When asked whether any automation program in 2019 has saved them from doing parts of their job that were repetitive and boring, 33.8% said they had such programs.

When asked how they could be better at their jobs if certain tasks were automated, most said that “automating certain tasks would allow me to do more in less time” (63.27%), followed by “reduce errors in my work” (38.8%), “allow me to be more creative” (27.47%), and “allow me to focus more on long-term strategic planning (28.8%).

Boring, repetitive tasks

Respondents were asked an open-ended question on what repetitive and boring tasks they wish automation would save them from doing. Examples of responses included:

  • Answering phone calls at work
  • Confirmation phone calls
  • Sending follow-up emails
  • Completing spreadsheets
  • Tedious organizing and filing
  • Keeping track of incoming data
  • Filling out the same papers over and over again.
  • Scheduling meetings

Physical labor tasks were also mentioned, such as “Loading books onto a conveyor belt to be three-hold punched,” and “I wish some of the labor was replaced with forklift machine” and “Placing nuts and bolts.”

Ian Barkin SYKES

Ian Barkin, SYKES

Too much optimism?

In discussing the results with Robotics Business Review, Ian Barkin, the chief strategy officer at SYKES, said there could be some confusion in workers’ minds about the terms “automation” implies for them in their own jobs. “One could posit that some respondents may have imagined physical walking, talking robots – something like Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons – doing everything they do at their job, and could not fathom it happening anytime soon,” said Barkin. “Or perhaps this same group of respondents are those who also told us that their employer is providing either some or a lot of training and/or resources to help them keep current with changes in technology – which over half of our respondents say is their experience.”

Barkin said there is some psychology behind such large numbers of American workers who don’t think their jobs are at risk in the next 10 years. “Humans don’t anticipate, or process, black swan events very well,” he said. “We anticipate change to be gradual, and we would rather assume that unfortunate events happen to others rather than ourselves – so some of the answers we see in our survey may very well be influenced by optimism or denial of impending change.”

He added that the speed of the change is often not as fast as media headlines would have us believe. “An intelligent understanding of the technologies in question – now that is the real issue,” said Barkin. “I’m certain most people don’t understand the types and capabilities of labor-emulating algorithms on the horizon. How could they?”

A blog post highlighting details from the survey is available here. You can also download a PDF version of the report.