Automation is hardly a new threat to employees. Long before COVID-19 disrupted companies, many manufacturing executives were already changing the way their companies assembled products, and other industries were considering following suit.
But as the global crisis drags on, the pandemic could accelerate that shift.
“Whenever there is a disruption, people are forced to make decisions,” said Tom Smith, associate professor of finance at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “I would like to invest in the fact that this has at least speeded up the decision-making process. When you suddenly find yourself in a crisis, smart and creative people find solutions. Creative people will not let the crisis take everything away if they can do something about it. “
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), just under 40% of US jobs are at significant risk of being automated. More than 10% of the jobs in the country are at high risk. Several other countries are at a significantly higher level.
In the long run, that could mean a workforce with new core skills, including analytical and critical thinking and enhanced creativity, but the short term could be a lot more rocker – news that is unlikely to be welcome for those already on leave or temporarily fired.
“There is a difference between how people behave and how they should behave,” says Smith. “Companies used to have responsibilities to their employees. That is simply not the case anymore. Employees are disposable. So once you have automated, you have no responsibility whatsoever to the employees. I’m not saying it’s right or ethical, but companies just don’t feel they have any responsibility to their employees once they are displaced. The truth is, workers are given a pink slip and a sheet cake. “
The most valuable skills will of course be linked to the use and design of technology, including those automation systems. But the public health crisis has disrupted an already slow uptake among people worldwide. That only increases the threat to employees.
“The lack of adequate digital skills not only hinders the spread of [information and communications technology] but also increases the risk of job losses related to automation, ”said the WEF. “In 16 of the 27 OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries, digital skills scores have fallen over the past four years, making it more difficult for employees to transition to new roles. “
Automation is not as scary as it was a year ago. The pandemic has shown the benefits of delegating some responsibilities to machines, allowing people to focus on more important issues and take more social distance.
However, some of the societal problems that have come to light in the past year will not be addressed – and, some experts warn, it could exacerbate them.
“The productivity and efficiency gains from technological change will have a net positive effect on society. However, this does not mean that we have no cause for concern, ”Marcus Casey, a non-resident fellow in the economic studies program at Brookings Institution wrote in a blog post last month. “Advances in automation and A.I. have the potential to magnify many of the challenges facing our society today: income and wealth inequality, concentration of corporate power, reduced upward mobility and persistent disability, gender and racial discrimination. “
Given how quickly the pandemic brought certain industries to a halt, many companies could have a much closer look at their capital structure – and what it will look like in the years to come. And the question for many managers is whether they should consider replacing employees with automation, if only so that their business doesn’t have to shut down completely when another pandemic strikes.
“Having this kind of disruption in the economy gives a lot of companies an extra push to rethink how they do business,” Smith said. “There is no doubt that nudge has been a really strong rib crusher this time around. I have to believe that this economic disruption is causing many companies to re-evaluate what their manufacturing process is like.”
The good news for employees is that automation is not something that can be taken on on a whim. The coronavirus has impacted the revenues of many companies, and the transition to an automated system requires significant investment. Businesses are essentially replacing one set of expenses with another in view of the long-term savings.
And while automation is spreading to not just manufacturing, but from food service to supermarkets and call centers, there are some businesses where the workers can rest quite easily, they won’t be replaced by technology.
“If you’re a real bar and people come because they like popcorn and bartender, then there’s no automation that can keep that bar going,” Smith says.
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