Automation is not a new threat to workers. Long before the arrival of COVID-19 disrupted businesses, many manufacturing executives were already changing the way their companies assembled products, and other industries were planning to follow suit.
But as the global crisis has prolonged, the pandemic could accelerate this change.
“Anytime there’s a disruption, it forces people to make decisions,” says Tom Smith, associate professor of finance at Goizueta Business School at Emory University. “I would put money on the fact that it at least speeded up the decision-making process. When all of a sudden you’re in crisis, smart and creative people find solutions. Creatives don’t let the crisis destroy everything if they can help it. “
A little bit less 40% of American jobs are at considerable risk to be automated, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). More than 10% of the country’s jobs are at high risk. Several other countries are at significantly higher levels.
In the long run this could mean a workforce with new foundational skills, including analytical and critical thinking and increased creativity, but the short term could be much more difficult – news that is unlikely to be the news. welcome for people already laid off or temporarily laid off.
“There is a difference between how people behave and how they should behave,” says Smith. “Companies used to have responsibilities to their workers. This is no longer the case. Workers are disposable. So, once you automate, you have no accountability to the workers. I’m not saying it’s true or ethical, but companies just don’t feel responsible for their workers once they’ve been moved. The truth is, the workers are going to be given a pink slip and a sheet of cake. “
The most valuable skills, of course, will be related to the use and design of technology, including these automation systems. But the public health crisis has disrupted an already slow adoption around the world. This only increases the threat to workers.
“The lack of adequate digital skills not only prevents the spread of [information and communications technology] but also exacerbates the risk of job losses linked to automation, ”the WEF said. “In 16 of the 27 OECD countries [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries, digital skills scores have declined over the past four years, making it difficult for workers to transition into new roles. “
Automating is not as scary as it was a year ago. The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of delegating some responsibility to machines, letting humans focus on bigger issues, and allowing for more social distancing.
However, that won’t erase some of the societal issues that have surfaced over the past year – and, some experts warn, it could make them worse.
“The productivity and efficiency gains of technological change will be a net positive for society. However, that doesn’t mean we have no reason to worry, ”wrote Marcus Casey, a non-resident scholar in the economics studies program at the Brookings Institution. in a blog post last month. “Advances in automation and artificial intelligence have the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges our society currently faces: income and wealth inequalities, concentration of corporate power, reduced upward mobility and persistent disability, gender and racial discrimination. ”
Given how quickly the pandemic has ended some industries, many companies may take a closer look at their capital structure and what it will look like in the years to come. And the question that worries many executives is whether they should consider replacing employees with automation, if only so that their businesses don’t have to shut down completely in the event of a new pandemic.
“When you experience a disruption in the economy like this, it gives many companies that extra push to re-examine the way they do business,” Smith says. “There’s no question that the nudge was a really strong coast breaker this time around. I have to believe that this economic disruption is causing many companies to re-evaluate what their production process looks like. “
The good news for employees is that automation isn’t something you can do on a whim. The coronavirus has impacted the revenues of a wide range of businesses, and the transition to an automated system represents a significant capital expenditure. Businesses, for the most part, substitute one set of expenses for another, with an eye on long-term savings.
And while automation extends beyond manufacturing to everything from foodservice to grocery stores to call centers, there are companies where workers can rest easy enough, they won’t be replaced. through technology.
“If you’re a brick and mortar bar and people come in because they love popcorn and the bartender, no automation can keep this bar going,” says Smith.
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