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Crowdstaffing featured as Rising Star and Premium Usability HR platform in 2019

Crowdstaffing has earned the prestigious 2019 Rising Star & Premium Usability Awards from FinancesOnline, a popular B2B software review platform. This recognition is given out annually to products[...]

May 13, 2019

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Productivity Boosting Technology May Power Our Workforce Evolution

Sometimes, to gain a clear perspective of events, we must look beyond our own boundaries. Let’s face it, dissecting challenges and shifts is more difficult for those in caught in the middle of them. This is why I found a September 30 editorial in Britain’s The Observer a timely and informative piece. “There is a range of social and economic challenges that will test that commitment to reform: how to cope with an ageing population; how to move to growth based more on investment than debt; how to come to a more equitable settlement between the generations,” the article stated. “One particularly important question is how we adapt to the challenges technology and automation pose for the future of work.” Across the pond, we’re confronting the same questions. Yet unlike the naysayers, pessimists and neo-Luddites, I agree with the overwhelming conclusion that British economists have reached: we’re not investing in “productivity boosting technology fast enough.”

Embracing Change and New Opportunities

Our history, in terms of labor, is a saga underscored by industry disruptions, worries about displacing entire workforces, course changes, and, ultimately, advances that led to new economies and talent needs. The whaling industry offers an excellent parable.

Throughout the 1700s, whale oil powered the lamps of U.S. homes. Then, around 1859, the petroleum industry was born. Kerosene from petroleum steadily replaced sperm oil as an affordable illuminant in North America, eventually spreading on a global scale. True, whale fisheries and fleets suffered in the process. However, shipping continues to be a vital industry today. Those early ship owners, the clever ones, merely repurposed their vessels to meet the emerging demands. And it’s no secret how large oil and gas companies became, not the mention the scores of jobs they created during their rise.

At the precipice of any catalyst or transformation, there are fears. And like most fears, they take root in the trepidation associated with the unknown and unfamiliar. However, there is still no definitive indication that machines will utterly replace human talent, as The Observer pointed out:

But the steady march of human progress has not yet eliminated the need for us to work. Instead, technological developments over the last two centuries have improved economic productivity and served to make us all richer. As some jobs have disappeared, others have replaced them; there are fewer manufacturing jobs in Britain today than there were 50 years ago, but there are many more service sector jobs. In 50 years’ time, there will undoubtedly be many more jobs created that use the human skills that will remain difficult to automate, such as empathy, care and creativity.

This is why labour market economists such as Alan Manning argue that the human race is unlikely to be on the cusp of a new technological revolution that will reduce human economic activity. Indeed, today’s labour market is showing none of the signs we would expect if automation was starting to erode the net amount of work. Productivity has fallen to pre-crisis levels, while overall employment is at record levels. If anything, British businesses are not investing in productivity boosting technology fast enough.

Roles at Risk of Robot Replacement

According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), CNN reported, 38 percent of U.S. jobs are considered at risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next 15 years. For the United Kingdom, PwC pegs the figure at 30 percent. For Japan, 21 percent. John Hawksworth, PwC’s chief U.K. economist, explained the difference in the numbers as related to the nature of the work performed.

Many workers in the U.S. financial sector, he pointed out, focus on domestic retail operations -- bank tellers in small towns, for example. Meanwhile, the same sector in Britain concentrates on international finance and investment banking, which require higher levels of expertise because of their increased complexities.

Jobs Most at Risk

According to an Oxford University study of more than 700 occupations, these positions face the greatest threat of computer automation in the next two decades. The report also included a percentage of probability.

  • Loan officers | 98 percent
  • Receptionists | 96 percent
  • Paralegals and legal assistants | 94 percent
  • Retail salespeople | 92 percent
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs | 89 percent
  • Security guards | 84 percent
  • Cooks, fast food | 81 percent
  • Bartenders | 77 percent
  • Personal financial advisers | 58 percent

The Good News

Despite the threat, PwC believes the rise of automation will actually boost productivity and generate additional jobs elsewhere in the economy.

“Automating more manual and repetitive tasks will eliminate some existing jobs, but could also enable some workers to focus on higher value, more rewarding and creative work, removing the monotony from our day jobs,” Hawksworth told The Independent.

As I’ve written before, many marvels await us through advances in exponential technologies. Machine learning, digital intelligence, augmented reality and robotic assistants are weaving themselves into every strand in the fabric of our lives. Telemedicine and nanotechnology will dramatically enhance our health and longevity. Printing in 3D will evolve to incorporate biological materials, not just mechanical parts, to provide starving people with food. Solar-powered desalination systems can deliver water to arid regions and generate energy in the process.

We’ve also covered the renewed emphasis on the importance of humanity in a machine age. Computers will assume a greater share of the duties currently tasked to human talent, including programming and data analysis; however, there’s a limit to what machines will be able to accomplish. As Rally Health’s Tom Perrault observed in Harvard Business Review, “What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success.”

Perrault echoed sentiments we expressed back in 2014: Even with technology enabling humans and automating processes, future talent will still be needed to program the computers, provide medical services (even if those would seem to imply genetics and cloning), maintain and build the new infrastructures, educate both computers and users, provide entertainment and deliver professional or personal support services.

“It’s not about learning specific skills, it’s about having the cognitive abilities to adapt to technologies,” said Carl Benedikt Frey, co-author of a 2013 University of Oxford study about the scope of automation.

Investing in Robotics and AI to Create American Jobs

Catalyst for Small Business and Entrepreneurial Growth

Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, wrote a thought-provoking piece in The Conversation, an academic publication. “To really help U.S. workers,” he explained, “we should invest in robots.”

Among many considerations in his comprehensive article, Correll observed how automation technologies are encouraging a new type of entrepreneurship in the United States, which holds the potential to spur the growth of small businesses across the country.

Many American entrepreneurs use digitally equipped manufacturing equipment like 3-D printers, laser cutters and computer-controlled CNC mills, combined with market places to outsource small manufacturing jobs like mfg.com to run small businesses. I’m one of them, manufacturing custom robotic grippers from my basement. Automation enables these sole proprietors to create and innovate in small batches, without large costs.

This sort of solo entrepreneurship is just getting going. Were robots more available and cheaper, people would make jewelry and leather goods at home, and even create custom-made items like clothing or sneakers, directly competing with mass-produced items from China.

Filling Labor Gaps and Creating Jobs

A recent Bloomberg story described the amazing way machines are filling labor shortages and creating employment opportunities.

Blueprint Robotics in Baltimore builds modular structures -- from residential homes to dorms, apartments, hotels and even mansions -- through an automated, assembly line process. The units are pieced together “like giant Legos.” However, the designs are functional, economical, sturdy, portable and aesthetically stunning. That’s why companies like Marriott International are turning to modular construction. However, what makes Blueprint Robotics so fascinating is that its business model is defying the ominous warnings about automation.

Instead of displacing workers -- a usual side effect of automation -- Blueprint’s machines are creating opportunities for people...who wouldn’t otherwise be a part of the homebuilding industry. On the factory floors, 29 production workers are operating machines that cut, sand, drill and insulate. A milling center with several different options for blades, caged in safety glass, gets to work after an employee -- no hard hat needed -- uploads a file that tells it exactly what to do.

The company is also creating job opportunities in less populated areas, such as rural Pennsylvania, where career options are limited or scarce. Even better, people with no background in construction can become skilled laborers in two weeks of training.

Investing in Productivity Boosting Technology is Investing in Our Future

Around the world, business leaders are pushing automation, globalization and the ongoing digitization of tasks. Attempting to ignore or avoid the machine age, Correll noted, will merely stifle innovation. Some jobs may vanish or change as a result. It’s happened countless times throughout our history. However, as more technological industries appeared, they created flourishing economies and exponentially broader employment opportunities. The whaling fleets of Nantucket shrank as massive energy businesses rose. Coal and oil companies became the gold standard in fuel, generating an astonishing number of jobs -- far surpassing the vocational prospects whaling could ever have sustained.

If we embrace the efficiencies and competitive advantages of automation, we can find new ways to support human talent -- not displace them. As workforce leaders, it’s within our grasp, our expertise and our mission. Perhaps the best way to assuage the fears and highlight the exciting opportunities before us is to repeat this simple quote from Blueprint Robotics CEO Jerry Smalley. “Robots cut the hole,” he said. “But somebody still has to put the electrical box and pipes in the right places.”

Sunil Bagai
Sunil Bagai
Sunil is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, thought leader and influencer who is transforming the way companies think about and acquire talent. Blending vision, technology and business skills honed in the most innovative corporate environments, he has launched a new model for recruitment called Crowdstaffing which is being tapped successfully top global brands. Sunil is passionate about building a company that provides value to the complete staffing ecosystem including clients, candidates and recruiters.
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