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Working in America: The Onset and Impact of Automation

The state of work in America, across industries, is undergoing its most seismic shift since the Industrial Revolution. An alphabet soup of high-tech acronyms is redefining a rapidly approaching future of work.

Artificial intelligence (AI), robot process automation (RPA), machine learning (ML), the Internet of Things (IoT), Natural Language Processing (NLP) are the technology trends driving increasing automation across every aspect of our lives — the social networks we use, the cars we drive (or drive for us), the ways we shop, the way we consume and the digital services we’ve come to rely upon. Increasingly, all these once-unimaginable innovations are affecting something even more essential: the jobs we do.

In this special issue of Working in America we explore the impact this whir of technological advances is having on the jobs of the future.

Productivity meets creativity

Nearly all research and expert opinion agrees that significant change is coming, with every workplace transformed by automation and the role of humans, equally transformed. Although much of the discussion around this change focuses on job replacement by robots, there is an equally important outcome for businesses, their workforce and their customers: productivity.

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute analysis report, the productivity growth from anticipated automation in the coming 50 years could rise from 0.8% to 1.4%. That’s three times the growth realized by previous eras of automation triggered by the steam engine (0.3%), early robotics (0.4%) and the millennium surge in information technology (0.6%).

Related to business productivity is a human story of creativity. The World Economic Forum developed a list of characteristics their analysis predicts will be required for jobs in 2020, with many quite different from today. These new skills will require more creativity and critical thinking than manual task completion. Many experts point to this as an important long-term benefit to both businesses and workers: As machines replace repeatable tasks, people are empowered to bring creativity into their work.

Robots, humans and work

The word robot is Czech for “work” and was first used to describe a fictional humanoid in a 1920 play R.U.R. by writer, Karel Čapek. We shared this bit of trivia with Aerotek market research analyst Eddie Beaver when discussing the increasing pace of automation in the workplace.

“Our research tells us there’s as much opportunity as there is downside for workers across almost every industry. First of all, there are some jobs, like advanced A&P mechanics and many engineering disciplines which won’t be replaced by machines any time soon. In industries where certain repetitive tasks can be automated with robots, those machines and processes will need a lot of human minders. And finally, as with previous eras of innovation that saw a lot of jobs being replaced by machines, there was always a net gain in jobs due to new tasks, disciplines and even industries arising that we don’t see today,” Eddie told us.

Engineer working on plans at a drafting table

Net gains in the long run

The application of artificial intelligence in the workplace is a key consideration for the jobs most likely to be automated in the future. A Forrester Research study predicts that “[AI powered] robots will take over 6 percent of jobs in USA by 2021.” A 2013 Oxford study predicted that by 2035 up to 47 percent of jobs are at risk of being replaced by “computerization”, i.e. “machines enabled by artificial intelligence.”

But commenting on the WEF study cited above, Marc Andreesen (the founder of Netscape and creator of the first web browser, Mosaic) in his podcast site Software is Eating the World remarks, “we always make the mistake of looking at the absolute numbers, not their relative impact. As an example, the estimate for 2016 is that about 24 million jobs will be eliminated in the US, which seems like a big deal. But what really matters is that 26 million jobs will be created as well.”

Adaptation — the skill that counts

Kevin Farley is a veteran technologist, software engineering contractor with Aerotek as well as a published author. We asked him what impact he was seeing from trends like artificial intelligence and the Internet-of-Things.

“The proliferation of smart devices and the IoT definitely means more jobs in engineering and related fields. Jobs not so different from the jobs out here now, just a redistribution of where you will find the greatest demand for new skills. For example, IoT changes the types of human-computer interfaces needed and that changes the required skillsets.”

Kevin underscored his point about the changes in the interfaces between humans and machines: “Since intelligent technology can be baked-into places unimaginable just a few years ago, there will be a demand for design engineers to create the devices of the right size and parts — profitably — to fit the environment they are to be placed in, and be usable by humans. This means we’ll need engineers that are essentially human factor specialists, engineers with uniquely combined skills connecting ergonomics, materials, and mechanical design. So, at least from where I stand, this shift in future work from advanced tech doesn’t necessarily displace existing engineers and design specialists. It means engineers and designers will do what we have always done: we adapt.”

Not all jobs are created equal

Many studies on the future of work echo the findings from this McKinsey study, which suggest some jobs are more susceptible to automation than others. Manually performed tasks in predictable environments top the list — jobs like sewing machine operators, data processors and agricultural sorters. According to the McKinsey analysis, “these activities make up 51 percent of activities in the economy, accounting for almost $2.7 trillion in wages”.

As the table below reveals, the industries where automation will likely have the most impact in replacing humans are manufacturing, accommodation (e.g. travel and hospitality), food service and retail trade.

The McKinsey chart reveals that higher skilled jobs like travel agents, nursing assistants and even web developers might see elements of their jobs replaced by automation. Their analysis suggests a “60/30” might play out in the jobs marketplace, where about 60% of the jobs we know today will see about 30% of their current tasks automated.

Two insights arise from these types of studies. Firstly, some professions seem to be unlikely candidates for significant robot replacement anytime soon. But secondly and perhaps more importantly, even as we see job processes assumed by machines, people in many industries will become employable in activities that complement the work of these machines. There is already evidence of this in retail settings. The rise of e-commerce took a bite out of the workforce, but as traditional retailers embrace online shopping, new and higher paying positions are created.

Warehouse worker scanning box

Co-botting and the new gray collar

There is no use ignoring the reality of the future — some human jobs will be replaced with machines, but there will be new jobs created we haven’t yet imagined. Even in those areas where machines will replace humans, those machines will require human minders for upkeep, upgrades and quality checks.

Erica Kettner is an Aerotek account lead focusing on manufacturing in the Midwest. She sees the changing face of work up close every day helping companies find talent in an industry already transformed by advancing technology. Erica told us a new term “co-botting” has been coined to describe the new discipline for machine minding.

“We call it the human factor and, by definition, machines can’t do it. The companies we work with are designing, building and installing amazing machines with robotic sensors, x-rays — artificial intelligence and machine learning powering it all. We’re helping them to find, train and deploy a new generation of workers needed to install and manage these machines in the workplace. So, jobs that once were 100% operator controlled are now performed by the machines — but machines which require an elevated set of skills and training on the part of the humans. This is what they call co-botting,” Erica explains.

Our independent listening research confirms this trend from the worker’s point of view. We’ve found a sense of empowerment among this emerging “gray collar” workforce — who find job satisfaction in being a new type of manager — not of people, but the “boss of a machine,”

A different place to work

Erica described another growing trend she sees in manufacturing. “Traditionally, my clients were tool and die manufacturers, they’re the people who build the machines that make machines. These traditional cutting and forming machines were mostly manually operated in a work environment quite different than the ones we’re seeing emerge. Often, the new manufacturing workplace is about working as much with your head as with your hands. It’s changing the way we recruit skilled labor. The work environment is extremely clean, it’s first-shift work in temperature controlled environments.”

Erica continued underscoring her point with her own experiences. “My dad worked in manufacturing for almost twenty years. I know what it can do to a person over that period of time, spent in a traditional manufacturing environment. The new workplace seems different. I’ve never had a complaint from one of the generation raised on old-school manufacturing when they get a job in the new workplace. And it’s not just the physical environment changes. Workers tell me they feel less grinding pressure from management regarding deadlines. Even the pay can be better.”

Eddie Beaver, our research specialist, agreed about the positive workplace changes, “Yes, we’re already seeing another benefit: the new work environment where robots can assume the more mundane and repetitive tasks, is a workplace where injuries are less likely to occur as machines free humans to the higher-level tasks. The result is a significantly safer workplace.”

Brain drain remains

Ironically, some industries are facing another challenge, one that off-sets the gains in productivity made by automation — the retiring of a highly experienced workforce. Skilled people in disciplines ranging from welders and mechanics to lab techs and engineers are retiring and taking decades of expertise and know-how with them when they do. The trend creates strong headwinds for companies in industries where automation is not anticipated to replace human know-how in the foreseeable future.

“It’s a problem we see in manufacturing especially and many of the skilled trades,” says Eddie Beaver our research specialist. Eddie cited a recent study by The Center for Automotive Research which predicts that, “Nearly three out of four tool and die makers are over the age of 45 and two in five makers are either currently eligible to retire or will be in five to seven years. Meanwhile, the Big 3 automakers alone will need 60% more work hours from a shrinking workforce between 2017 and 2019 to support new vehicle launches and refreshes.”

“For at least a generation, we’ve had skilled specialists mentoring, training and sharing their experience-based knowledge with younger professionals as they enter the trade. In the industries where we predict these advanced skills will continue to be performed by humans, this wave of retirement is a problem that no amount of automation will solve. We focus on helping companies solve for this by keeping would-be retirees in the mentoring mix on the job, wherever they’re needed most urgently.”

Geeks wanted

Echoing the insights of our software engineer Kevin Farley, Beaver suggests there are some jobs in the technology space that will remain in increasingly high demand.

“There’s the obvious demand for advanced software engineers, developers and robotics specialists who are needed to design and build the products to populate what people are now calling the ‘IoE’, or the internet of everything,” says Eddie.

“Analytics itself is becoming a significant growth industry. There’s a growing demand for data analysts and data scientists, and it’s not limited to the technology industry. Industries like finance and accounting, marketing, legal and the sciences are all in need of a new breed of specialists. These are data scientists and analysts skilled in the emerging disciplines of machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language processing.”

Kevin Farley adds to this, “Yes, my advice to young engineers is to learn and understand that the IoT is not just a thing, it is a stack of things with an interconnecting communications web. A critical aspect of software and hardware engineering can’t be emphasized enough: domain knowledge — specific industry domain knowledge, not engineering domain knowledge. It’s tough to create software and hardware for an industry you don’t know deeply. The opportunistic engineer should pick an industry they’d like to work in and learn as much as they can about how it works.”

Training — the enduring frontier

In a workplace where humans are increasingly being replaced by machines, training and re-training become critical for companies and workers.

In industries where workers are elevated from performing traditional tasks to monitoring, managing and maintaining the machines, there’s a huge need for enhanced skills training. Maybe your job was once data entry, but now it requires the monitoring of data processing machines and acting as a quality control specialist. Or, you surrender the tasks of your administrative assistant to automation, but are given the opportunity to elevate that employee to a project manager.

There are other cases where we’re talking about the training needed to help people whose jobs are gone in an industry they worked in — and they need to acquire the learning and skills needed to find work in a new industry altogether. Aerotek is seeing companies investing in the re-training of their workforce displaced by automation. But it won’t likely meet the increasing demand. Filling this need, we’re working with local colleges, often community colleges, to ensure they’re offering the types of courses required for the new workplace. We then work to connect companies with these colleges to enroll their workers in relevant programs, making their skills marketable again.

Workplace automation — the long view

Jeff Christensen is an Aerotek contractor who has put together a long and satisfying career across three decades, with tours that included an exotic two-year stint working in a nuclear power plant in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Having worked in a range of industries and manufacturing settings Jeff had an insightful view about the impact of automation on working in America.

Student learning about machinery in a class

“When I was a young man, a guy told me ‘do whatever needs doing’ if you want to succeed. He said if they asked for someone to sweep the parking lot, grab a broom. That’s been my philosophy since then. I pushed myself back then to get my journeyman’s certification as a millwright and then I kept taking vocational classes to better myself and my jobs.”

Jeff continued, “The manufacturing workplace has changed radically since I entered the trade. It’s more professional. And the newcomers I see joining the work force, come in with an expectation that it’s all computerized.”

“My experience is that the companies take a lot of pride in this and, of course, the need to be very efficient. So when I see a company investing in automating processes, I see a company investing in the training of their workers. They put them into apprenticeships and they pay for classes. Those workers become a greater value to the company, while they’re also adding value to their careers.”

We wondered what Jeff felt about advancing technology taking jobs away from humans in the future: “I think people can get it wrong about automation. At least from my experience — and I’ve been doing this for a lot of years — automation makes companies more efficient. I’m one of the guys who works on these machines. The line I work on right now needs a room the size of a football field to house it. And what I see is that these machines require people to program them, people to operate and monitor them and people to maintain them.”

Jeff’s long-view of the evolving workplace and the changing faces of the humans who work there is insightful. It also echoes the finding of Harvard economist James Bressen, who wrote last year that “of 270 occupations listed in the 1950 US Census, only one no longer exists due solely to automation: elevator operator.”

The changing nature of work affects everyone, from businesses and their customers to their contactors and staff. As this change accelerates, we remain exceedingly proud of the contribution our people make — our contractors, our clients and our recruiters and account managers — to the increasingly changing workplace of today and whatever the future brings.

Are you in the market for work or looking for a change? Take a look at Aerotek’s job openings or create a free career account today to customize your job search.

Jeff Christensen appears courtesy of Account Manager Kettner. Kevin Farley appears courtesy of Account Manager Emily Vlkojan-Reece.