For decades, workers across the world have worried that robots were coming to take their jobs. The concerns are particularly acute in blue-collar industries like hospitality and manufacturing.
As artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robots have become more commonplace, the consensus seems to be that futuristic tech may replace some manual tasks that humans currently do. Ultimately, this is good as it will drive productivity, and enable humans to focus on value-adding, better paid work.
In a recent interview with UNLEASH, Protiviti’s Fran Maxwell shares research that shows that technology is not coming for people’s jobs. While 86% of the future of work experts Protiviti surveyed agreed that AI, and other emerging tech like virtual reality, the metaverse and quantum computing, will change the types of jobs that employee will do, 74% said that technology will create jobs in the future.
In fact, the study suggested that emerging tech will actually help businesses to “increase the size of their workforce in ten years’ time”.
Will workers reap the rewards?
This data suggests that emerging technology, and robots in particular, could be incredibly beneficial for organizations focused on productivity and business growth, but is it actually positive for workers?
Yes, they may no longer need to do often-boring, monotonous manual work, but are they actually appropriately skilled to do this value-adding work that tech will create? Are they sufficiently digitally skilled to work alongside robots?
Academics from the National Bureau of Economic Research therefore decided to investigate the impact of robots and emerging tech on workers in China.
China has been investing at scale in robots and automation in manufacturing and agriculture, as part of its mission to be a global high-tech hub and compete with the likes of Germany and the US. So it is further along its journey of robots at work than some other developed nations.
Using Chinese national data on 15,000 households, researchers found that that exposure to robots had a negative impact on the labor market, and pushed some workers to leave the workforce, thereby increasing the unemployment rates.
This was because workers struggled to ‘adjust’ to the changes wrought by emerging tech; the impact was particularly stark on lower-skilled, older workers, and often pushed them to pursue early retirement.
The report stated “an increase by one standard deviation in robot exposure lowers an individual’s probability of being employed by six percentage points (-7.5% with respect to the mean), increases the likelihood of leaving the labor force by one percentage point (+10.5% with respect to the mean), and increases the likelihood of reporting unemployment status by five percentage points (or 0.17 standard deviations).”
In addition, “robot exposure reduces hourly income on average (-9%), but with no significant effect on annual income, as individuals in areas that are more exposed work longer hours (+14%)”.
Robots’ positive impact on L&D
The findings were not all doom and gloom. The presence of robots in the workplace spurred younger workers to embrace technical or work-related learning and development (L&D) opportunities.
The report stated: “Exposure to competition from robots may induce some workers to invest in human capital to keep their jobs or stay competitive in the labor market. This may be particularly true among younger workers who enjoy longer returns from these investments.”
It also pushed workers to focus on the types of education their children were getting (+10%), and focus on their extra-curricular activities to ensure they are ready for a robot-powered future workplace.
More research is needed into this phenomenon outside of China, but, for HR leaders, this data shows that when implementing emerging technologies, they must couple it with digital upskilling, as well as reassurance tech is here to supplement employees’ work, not to replace them.
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