How can we save jobs in a more automated workplace?

Automation replacing certain jobs and tasks in the workplace is inevitable. We briefly discuss ways in which countries mitigate the impact.  

 

At the Jamaica 55 Diaspora 2017 Conference, held last month, Country Manager for global business process outsourcer, Sutherland Global Services, in Jamaica, Odetta Rockhead-Kerr, emphasised the need for the country “to invest more in its human capital in order to safeguard or sustain jobs in the Jamaica BPO sector as technology progresses” (Source: Nearshore Americas). Her position was driven by the fact that as the use of software robots in the workplace continues to increase, tasks traditionally executed by us, humans, are being, and will continue to be, automated.

The growing trend towards automation (or robotics) and artificial intelligence (AI) is issue that we, here at ICT Pulse, began to examine last year (see our earlier article, Will software robots make humans obsolete in the workplace?). However, as automation continues to take hold globally, it is crucial that policymakers, along with public and private sector organisations, consider and make strategic decisions the better position the workforce for what is to come.

In Jamaica, for example, the current government is placing considerable emphasis on the outsourcing services industry to solve the country’s high unemployment rate, which as of April 2017 stood at 12.3% (Source: Statistical Institute of Jamaica). As of earlier this year, the size of Jamaica’s business process outsourcing (BPO) industry was estimated at over 25,000 employees (Source: The Gleaner), but aggressive growth targets are being bandied about, ranging from achieving around 36,000 to over 50,000 employees by 2020. It therefore means that Jamaica is looking for the BPO industry to not only absorb highly skilled individuals, but also much lower-skilled workers that they hope can be successfully trained for some of the lower value segments of the industry, such as call centres.

However, this approach is not limited to Jamaica. Many Caribbean countries, such as Belize, Guyana, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago, to name a few, are eager to capitalise on the ability of the outsourcing services industry to create a large number of jobs for a relatively small investment. However, what should be becoming increasingly apparent is, thanks to automation, BPO can no longer be the catch-all for lower-skilled segments of the population that can be trained to carry out relatively simple tasks.

Further, it is important to emphasise that the BPO and outsourcing services industries are not the only areas that will be affected by Ai and automation. According Susan Lund, of global management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, their impact will be extensive:

With today’s technology, roughly half of the tasks that people do can be automated. That’s a staggering figure. But just as interesting, and maybe even more important, is that only 5 percent of jobs can be entirely automated. What it means is that, increasingly, all jobs are going to be affected. The way we work is going to shift over time as machines and machine learning and artificial intelligence start to take over some pieces of what we do. That will require people to adapt and change. And jobs, occupations as we know them today, will shift.

So what can be done?

To mitigate the impact of AI and automation in the workplace, we all must be prepared to adapt and change. According to Rockhead-Kerr, who was focussing on BPO, countries need to improve the skillset of their talent pool, in order to future-proof the industry they currently have:

“The first strategy is to move up the value chain. Processes that are highly variable require decision making and judgment that cannot easily be replaced by robotics or artificial intelligence…”

(Source: Nearshore Americas)

Broadening the context to the entire workplace, it is also no longer enough to ‘train’ people, which by definition mean “to teach a particular skill or type of behavior through practice and instruction over a period of time” (Source: Oxford University Press). Today’s technology is so sophisticated that robots can be also trained: and they can work faster, more cheaply, and without making as many errors as humans.

Instead, the emphasis should be on developing cognitive and analytical skills: that is on educating our citizens – not just training them. For those who have already left the school system, a comprehensive remediation framework may be essential. For those currently in the school system, that framework may need to be critically examined to ensure that it is preparing today’s and tomorrow’s students for the world that is to come.

Do not put our heads in the sand

In light of the above, we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand, and operate in a state of denial that AI and automation will not affect our workplaces. Due to the scale of BPO, and its emphasis on efficiently and effectiveness, it can be considered the proverbial canary – giving advance warning to the mainstream of issues and challenges it will need to address.

It is also important to emphasise that as much as AI and automation will assume some of the tasks humans are currently doing, they will also open up new opportunities that we cannot yet conceive, potentially enriching both our personal and professional lives. Hence, we as individuals, business leaders, policymakers, and even countries, must not only be open to what AI and automaton will bring, but also equipped and prepared to adapt and change as needed.

 

Image credit:  untitled exhibitions (flickr)

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2 Comments

  • That automation/robotics is coming is no doubt. I think what will be interesting to observe is whether history will repeat itself: will the situation be like when computers, esp personal computers, started gaining ground?

    • I think it will hit harder than when PCs starting gaining ground; this is just due to the rate at which technology is advancing, things are starting to interconnect more and more as the Internet of Things (IoT) progresses as well. Once we hit that critical mass of wide spread technology along with the band width to support this, change will be rapid.

      An interesting statement ” the price of capital, not the price of labour, will determine the location of production as technology gets better. Places where capital markets are more developed thus have a great advantage over places where capital markets are thin” from the report “ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE The Road Ahead in Low and Middle-Income Countries” found at http://webfoundation.org/docs/2017/07/AI_Report_WF.pdf

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