Shifting Labor in the Automation Revolution

Shifting Labor in the Automation Revolution

One of the biggest fears of any blue-collar worker is getting replaced by a robot. Recent years have seen a significant shift towards the use of intelligent machines in several industries, including but not limited to manufacturing. But those who think that this is a new trend are sorely mistaken. "Automation's power to transform economic sectors is nothing new," acknowledges the Society for Human Resource Management. So, it is time for the workforce to embrace these changes and get ahead of the curve before it is too late.

Automation has already become the present state of labor. Industry leaders have seen the immense benefits of incorporating intelligent machines into their operations, which has caused the technology to spread down throughout these industries. At this point, smaller companies can't keep up with the output of their larger competitors without the tools allowed to them by automation. In this type of sink-or-swim situation, companies must adapt to the new status quo or risk falling behind.

And the positive impacts that this shift towards automation has brought about are evident. Manufacturing service provider MANTEC discusses how incorporating intelligent machines in manufacturing has had a positive effect by saying, "The impact of automated manufacturing spreads far and wide, improving productivity and success for the entire company." With so many opportunities for growth tied directly to the adoption of automation, what reason is there for businesses not to embrace this shift?

Helping Workers Prepare for the Automation Revolution

But what does this mean for workers? The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that, within the U.S., increasing the number of robots will lead to an increased number of displaced workers in routine manual jobs. However, this is just a displacement. Although workers may find that their original positions have been eliminated in favor of a more efficient automated alternative, their experience and skills will help them succeed in this post-automation revolution world.

Industrial workers are not the only ones who will have to adapt to this shift towards automation. Other industries, even those that involve highly skilled workers, have seen an increasing prevalence of robots in their daily operations. It's a paradigm shift not happening in an isolated sense but across the world and in several fields. But just because there is a decrease in demand for jobs whose tasks can be automated, that doesn't mean that the need for human workers has been eliminated altogether.

In a recent article, the New York Times stated that the pandemic had forced several industries, especially the service industry, to shift towards automation. This will have long-lasting implications for both this and other fields. Now that companies have seen intelligent machines in action and know the substantial benefits they can have for the company's productivity and overall bottom line, it is unlikely that they will want to switch back to the way things were before since that means a loss in profits.

In a study conducted by the International Federation of Robotics, the average density of robots in the workplace in the manufacturing industry was 126 robots per 10,000 employees – nearly double the number in 2015, which was 66 robots per the same amount of human workers. Workers should note that the number of human workers needed for a successful operation still significantly outnumbers the automated component by slightly less than 100 to 1. They may need to be able to adjust what they do within their organization to make themselves an invaluable resource.

The Pew Research Center argues, "Advances in robotics and computing applications will result in a net displacement of jobs over the coming decades – with potentially profound implications for both workers and society as a whole." And while this may sound like gloom-and-doom rhetoric, it's true in a positive sense as well. Workers can expect to be displaced from their current jobs into ones that are more focused on oversight. With some additional training, many employees working in those unskilled roles in danger of being replaced can transition into a more skilled role.

It is with this approach that workers should embrace this shift towards automation. It shouldn't be about stopping this change from occurring because it will happen regardless of whether or not employees support it. The benefits of intelligent machines are too profound for companies to ignore the tremendous opportunities they offer. But by supporting this change and making themselves an integral part of this transition, workers can prove that there is still immense value to human workers, even if their contributions to the organization's success are different than before.

If workers are open to these new opportunities, they can potentially expect tremendous development in their careers. The McKinsey Institute has found that the demand for some skills, like technological, social, and emotional skills, will be in more demand in the face of the automation revolution. In contrast, physical and manual skills will be the ones that fall out of favor in human workers. And while it may be intimidating for these unskilled laborers to take on such a drastically different role, there is a profound growth potential if they adapt to this shift.

Embracing the Automation Revolution on a Wider Scale

Still, before this automation revolution can be embraced on a workforce level, it is crucial to embrace these things on a more widespread, cultural scale. There is still a significant cultural bias against the ubiquitous integration of robots into the industrial space. And while this bias won't entirely hinder the revolution from occurring — businesses are going to do what they are going to do, regardless of who or what gets in their way — it will limit workers' abilities to take advantage of the rewards of this shift.

The first thing that needs to change about perceived cultural notions of automation is that there needs to be a more comprehensive understanding of the benefits of machine intelligence. In an article in IndustryWeek, it was revealed that very few businesses understand the potential benefits that AI can have as a solution for their real-world problems. This communal lack of knowledge is a significant barrier to the thorough implementation of automated technology.

But beyond that, certain cultural stigmas have been associated with intelligent machines for far too long. When an average person thinks of artificial intelligence, some of the first things that come to mind are the images of robot overlords portrayed repeatedly in pop culture and the media. This has only instilled in the minds of society a paranoia that is inherently non-conducive to growth and expansion. We cannot let this irrational fear limit our economic potential.

The first step that needs to be taken before this technology can be embraced on a massive scale is that supporters need to combat these negative portrayals of automation. If society has a negative idea of intelligent machines set in their minds, they will be hesitant to embrace them. However, suppose supporters can dispel these myths by offering data-driven arguments in their place. In that case, it can create a society that is more open to exploring this new way of operation.

AI isn't necessarily an omen, either. The purpose of these intelligent machines is not to replace human workers but to supplement them. They can be used in ways that will encourage human productivity. The Harvard Business Review describes how AI can be designed as a coach, helping learners who require guidance, training mentors to be better mentors, and connecting the two more effectively. This means that machine intelligence brings about a positive change in the overall work environment.

There is also the challenge of automation being embraced politically. Opponents are calling for lawmakers to regulate the use of intelligent machines to protect workers' rights. However, the process of regulation inherently discourages innovation because those developing the technology are limited by a series of constraints. Innovation is essential in devising a solution where human workers and automated technology can coexist successfully.

A study from Brookings shows that people are often looking for a scapegoat upon which they can pin the loss of jobs, but no clear responsible party exists regarding automation. Lawmakers need to understand that companies are adopting this technology because it directly contributes to the success of their companies. The government doesn't want to make laws that directly limit a company's potential for growth because this could have substantial negative consequences on the economy as a whole.

Embracing the Shift to Intelligent Machines

But workers should also note that this paradigm will not shift overnight. It takes some time for these intelligent machines to be incorporated into the workplace and brought up to speed. This often requires some degree of oversight from people who have existing experience completing the task, or sometimes even an operator using the robot to permit it to function. As such, workers don't have to worry about their immediate financial stability when a robot is first introduced.

If workers take these steps to prepare for the imminent automation revolution, they will be fully prepared to handle the challenges that come along with it. Ultimately, it's just a matter of learning new skills and translating existing skill sets into the new responsibilities required in a post-automation world. It shouldn't be a scary prospect for laborers — it should be an exciting opportunity for personal and professional growth.

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