Embracing the Robot Revolution

Business Support Employers

A minor avalanche of recent media reports has painted a bleak future for our employment landscape, casting robots and automation as villains destroying jobs by the million.

A possible genesis was a September report from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Australia’s Future Workforce. The report found “a high probability that 40% of Australia’s workforce, more than five million people, could be replaced by automation within the next 10 to 15 years.” Not to be outdone, Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand in October released a report arguing 46% of New Zealand jobs were at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

Predictions of this sort make for great headlines, lending themselves to visions of mass unemployment and food riots on the steps of Parliament. But the evidence to date, and any genuine understanding of the capitalist process, suggest the actual outcomes of the coming change will be more prosaic.

The focus of much recent analysis has been on manufacturing. A Boston Consulting Group survey of US manufacturing executives in companies with sales of at least $US1 billion found 72% said they will invest in advanced automation in the next five years. The Economist says the change from mass manufacturing toward more individualised production “will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online.”

But most note the wave will extend far beyond just manufacturing. Computerworld reported in October that back-office IT services jobs were predicted to fall by 25% by 2020. Banking also features prominently as an at-risk profession. Occupations that would seem to be exposed only marginally to technology and automation are also at risk. Uber has been upsetting traditional taxi industries around the world. Companies like Xero are doing the same for accountancy, and some predict even the legal profession will be challenged by automation-wielding disrupters.

Commentators are calling this coming upheaval the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or, to use Boston Consulting Group’s term, Industry 4.0. Some might say all of this, if it comes to pass, will be particularly bad news for companies in our business. We don’t agree.

Because AWF Madison recruits across both blue- and white-collar occupations, we are in a position to observe these changes happening across the spectrum every day. Some of the roles we recruit for now didn’t exist 10 years ago, let alone 20. And many other roles would be familiar to people 10 or 20 years ago, but they now have a far greater involvement with automated processes and machinery. For example, think of carpenters and builders. They’re still needed to construct the ever growing number of houses. But pre-nail framing businesses using modern cutting techniques and millimetre accuracy for better quality fitting provide ready-built flat pack housing delivered to site. Or car mechanics: modern diagnostic tools and in-board computers support mechanics who are still required to change filters and spark plugs.

To predict half of today’s jobs will be automated in 20 years’ time is not the same as saying half of the workforce of 2035 will be unemployed – people will just be doing different things, or doing things differently. Industry 4.0 will look more like evolution than revolution, and the pace of change will be constrained by the demands of capital. Simply put, nobody is likely to invest vast sums in a state-of-the-art, fully-automated factory producing goods for which there is no market because everyone’s out of a job.

For individuals, surviving the changes is a matter – as in all things – of recognising the options and making good choices. The difficulty in New Zealand is that few are responding to the growing demand for new skilled and semi-skilled roles. It’s hard to imagine kids leaving school thinking, “I want to be a machinery operator in civil construction.” Yet these are valuable roles and worthwhile careers. They pay pretty well, too.

And they beat burger-flipping. Now there’s a job ripe for automation.