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13 June 2018

Industrial déjà vu? How to automate without putting jobs at risk

Recent years have seen automation technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) being implemented across every industry. While this technology has many business benefits – such as boosting efficiency and productivity and saving costs – there are growing concerns that workplace automation will make human labour redundant; leaving employees without work, and businesses without consumers.

These strikingly echo concerns during the Industrial Revolution, which shared notable similarities with our current situation. While the Industrial Revolution ultimately benefited everyone, the transition was marked by intense social, economic and political hardship. So, what can we learn from history, and how can we ensure that the current transformation is smoother?

With cooperation between employers and employees, automation technologies like RPA can enable innovative business models, increase productivity and grow the economy, while creating jobs that are better paid and more stimulating. Facilitating this with intelligent business processes will be vital to success. Here are some actionable tips:[1]

What employers can do

1) Offer Training

Play an active role in (re)educating and training staff, facilitating existing employees to take on more skilled work, and new employees moving from other occupations.

During the Industrial Revolution, this transformation was far from smooth. In many cases, workers whose skills became obsolete did not seamlessly transition to new jobs being created – there weren’t uniform programs or regulations in place to enable this – and the period saw widespread poverty and vast disparities emerging between rich and poor.

These initial investments will see returns: existing employees can apply established knowledge of the occupation, while new ones may transfer useful skills and ideas.

So, facilitating the acquisition of new skills and leveraging existing ones can benefit both the employee and equip the company with a more effective workforce.

2) Transform your business processes to leverage the benefits of automation

With RPA, for example, make use of increased efficiency by creating roles with more freedom and flexibility – business agility enables rapid innovation and growth.

Much like the Industrial Revolution, the impact of new technology – in this case process automation – will not be evenly distributed. All occupations have certain work that can be automated, but some industries have much higher proportions of this work. For example, most occupations involve a certain amount of data collection, data processing and predictable physical work – much of which is feasible to automate with technology such as RPA. While a small proportion of work within education is in these feasible areas, accommodation and food services work is largely composed of it.[2]

3) Engage in government lobbying

Involve government to create incentives for private-sector investment to treat human capital like other capital. Furthermore, you can work with academic institutions to revitalise education systems to make them more relevant, such as quality of STEM education, creative and critical thinking, and adaptive learning.

What employees can do

1) Find out how automation will impact the types of work available

During the 1830s, it was feared that the invention of the knitting machine would reduce many to starvation due to unemployment. Yet, by the end of the century, there were four times as many knitting factory workers as there had been before its invention, and weavers earned twice as much.

There are numerous resources available online about workplace and back-office automation. These should give you more insight into how RPA is currently being used and how it can potentially be used going forward. By knowing how your job may be affected you can plan ahead, which takes me to the next point…

2) Learn new skills

Learn skills that allow you to work alongside these technologies, like maintenance and development of technology, or creative and strategic work that cannot yet be automated.

Industries with high proportions of automation-feasible work will see the greatest disruption from automation. Some cases will be analogous to agriculture in the Industrial Revolution, seeing decreased employment; others analogous to knitting, instead seeing a transformation of the work, but stable or increased employment.

3) Get engaged with government

Work with government to create safety nets and transition support for affected workers, enabling you and others to move jobs and retrain without financial stress. The destruction of jobs in some sectors will precipitate growth in others. We have seen precedent for this with other recent technology: a third of new jobs created in the last 25 years did not exist – or barely existed – prior to that period.[3]

So, history teaches that technology revolutions do not necessarily equate to job losses but can actually create new opportunities and result in skilled workers enjoying higher pay.

By following the above steps, you, as an employer or as an employee, should be able to prepare for this most recent wave of technology revolution by investing in new skills and by setting up programmes that help make the transition as smooth as possible.

If you need further information on process automation or robotic process automation, contact us to speak to a consultant.


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/technology-jobs-and-the-future-of-work

[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/where-machines-could-replace-humans-and-where-they-cant-yet

[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/technology-jobs-and-the-future-of-work