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Ensure a Positive Candidate Experience When Hiring Contingent Talent Remotely

As digitization, coupled with the global pandemic, propels contingent hiring online and with more individuals relying on employer reviewer sites to evaluate businesses, delivering a positive[...]

March 10, 2021

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How Investing in Robots and Automation Can Create Human Jobs

We’re standing on the cusp of unprecedented achievements, enabled by machines. And everyone’s excited -- until the conversation moves to jobs. That’s when the fear takes hold. Mature as the staffing industry seems, it’s really entering a stage of latent puberty, given the digital transformations reshaping the workforce. So I think it’s time we had “the birds and the bees” talk -- except about automatons and AIs. Robots are coming, yet we can ensure that they don’t replace us. If we embrace automation and invest in it, we may discover a way to forge powerful opportunities that secure our future prosperity and wellbeing.

The Future Has Arrived, Courtesy of Flying Cars

Likely influenced by the popularity of “The Jetsons” cartoon in the 1960s, the notion of a flying car became a trope to signify the arrival of “the future” -- a technological benchmark indicating the dawn of a new age of intelligent machines, automation and invention. The future is here, by this logic.

In a viral video released this week, an aerospace engineer is seen piloting a flying car, for lack of a better description, over a scenic lake about 100 miles north of San Francisco, as the New York Times reported. A Silicon Valley company called Kitty Hawk, backed by Google Co-founder Larry Page, developed the prototype for this personal airborne vehicle. Page has allegedly invested more than $100 million in similar startups. Not to be outdone, Uber announced its plans to unveil flying cars by 2020, capable of shuttling passengers to their destinations in record time: 100 miles in 40 minutes.

And we can’t ignore Elon Musk’s Hyperloop -- a replacement for railways, which would propel passengers and freight through reduced-pressure tubes in pods, at speeds exceeding a standard airliner. Think of those pneumatic mail systems that operated between 1897 and 1953 -- packed with people instead of letters.

Last week, I explored the marvels that await our world 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 can even talk to our appliances, which respond by locking our doors, changing our thermostats, playing our favorite tunes or dimming the lights. Yet we still read dire articles warning us that machines will steal our livelihoods.

For all the Sturm und Drang that accompanies talk of the “robot revolution” or “Second Coming of the Machine Age,” what manifestation of this fear do we see in society? Consumer trends certainly show no resistance to technology, nor have they historically. We’re buying virtual assistants like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa. We prefer to stream movies and music over the Internet rather than travel to brick-and-mortar retailers. We enjoy the immediacy of email over handwritten correspondence. When we want cash, on the rare occasion we don’t make purchases online or with e-commerce apps on our smartphones, we choose the ATM instead of waiting in line to see a teller. Tired of vacuuming your floors? You can let a robot called Roomba do this dirty work.

The fact is that humans have sought to automate manual processes for as long as they’ve walked the Earth. Don’t believe me? The wheel. Carriages. Ships. Looms. Assembly lines. Garage door openers. Dishwashing machines. Traffic signals (yes, people used to regulate vehicles in transit). We clamber to attain the latest gadgets, and we revel in the ease that automation accords us. We’re not afraid of machines. We’re afraid of having less. This sense that tech will replace workers springs from that. So let’s look at jobs we could lose to automation and the new opportunities that can arise instead.

When the automotive industry took over, people who earned their livings by supporting horse-drawn transportation eventually found those jobs phased out. However, automobiles created an economic boom that gave back unfathomably more than it claimed. Entire industries were founded to capitalize on the new demands and opportunities: parts manufacturers, fast food restaurants, highway construction, state police/patrols, convenience stores, gas stations, repair shops, dealerships, insurance companies, finance organizations and more.

Roles at Risk of Automation

In March, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin offered an overly rosy assessment of the employment threats posed by artificial intelligence. “In terms of artificial intelligence taking over the jobs, I think we’re so far away from that that it’s not even on my radar screen,” he told an audience in Washington. “I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.” Mnuchin was wrong.

According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), CNN reported, 38 percent of U.S. jobs are considered at risk of being replaced by 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.

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 Robotics 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 thought leader, speaker, motivator, and the visionary behind the groundbreaking Crowdstaffing ecosystem. Blending vision, technology, and business skills, he is transforming the talent acquisition landscape and the very nature of work. Prior to launching Crowdstaffing, Sunil honed his skills and experience as a business leader for companies such as IBM, EMC, and Symantec. "We need to think exponentially to mindfully architect the future of humanity, civilization, and work. When we collaborate and work together, everyone prospers."
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