Poll debunks the myth of job-destroying robot

January 29, 2019

A crowd of executives from 19,000 companies in 44 countries delivered a crucial bit of collective wisdom about the future of labor market: almost all – 87% – of companies expect that they will maintain or increase the number of employees even with automation. Only 9% expect that the total numbers will decrease.

These were the results of a poll conducted by Manpower Group, one of the three largest global staffing companies. The poll is important because it represents a real-life view on the future of the labor market, not a forecast by an analyst estimating which jobs or tasks can – in theory – be automated.

Manpower Group’s poll gives one more crucial insight: almost all companies realize that they will have to focus on educating their staff, that they can’t rely on being able to find skilled staff for the fast evolving workplace. Moreover, it is almost shocking how fast this realization has spread. In 2015, only 20% of companies said they are upskilling their workforce, 54% said they have done it in 2018, while 84% expect they will have to be doing it by 2020 as they won’t be able to find the talent that they need at the moment.

The poll thus gives us these key insights:

9 out of 10 companies plan to increase or maintain headcount despite automation in the next two years.

Yes, job descriptions, work tasks and necessary skillsets will change. However, companies are in the middle of a massive turn to (re)train employees in order to ensure they have the talent they need.

Consequently, this shows that the dire-sounding warnings of people losing jobs to robots, in reality, are showing just one side of the coin.

Incidentally, the release of Manpower Group’s report coincided with the 2019 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The focus of the 2019 Davos event was Globalization 4.0, contemplating global challenges brought on by the fourth industrial revolution. In his opening speech, WEF founder Klaus Schwab chose warning mode, setting the tone for much of the media reports from the event. However, Manpower Group’s survey, as well as many other insights from corporate executives, shows that the reality and outlook is much more nuanced.

Insights from corporate executives suggest that dire-sounding warnings of people losing jobs to robots, in reality, are showing just one side of the coin

For example, writing in an op-ed piece at WEF’s own insights portal, Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer at Unilever, warns that, even though automation is reducing the share of human labor hours, the demand for human skill will, in fact, grow. She offers three key insights, all having two sides, “both grim and reassuring, depending on how you look at them”.

1 Automation is cutting the share of human labour

Ms Nair quotes the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2018 report, estimating that the human share of labour hours will drop from 71% to 58% by 2025, with machines and algorithms increasing their contribution to specific job tasks by an average of 57%. She points out that nearly 50% of companies expect that automation will lead to a reduction of the full-time workforce by 2022, and notes that the consumer goods industry is feeling the impact more heavily than most other industries – Unilever being no exception.

2 However, the net number of jobs will, in fact, grow

“There is a net positive outlook for jobs despite significant job disruption, and human skills, as well as jobs with distinctly human traits, are still in demand,” she says, quoting the estimate from the Future of Jobs 2018 report that 75 million current jobs will be displaced, but that 133 million new jobs will be created. Thus, it remains crucial to continue developing human capital, which can be achieved “through the power of purpose, the power of lifelong learning and the ability to harness everyone’s human potential.”

3 The employee-employer relationship is shifting to alternative employment

Ms Nair warns that alternative employment is a rising trend, with „every company’s value chain“ including not only its own employees “but millions of others including gig workers, contingent workers, part time employees and more.” Companies need to embrace this “outer core,” she says. This trend is in part a response to increased human longevity, which requires more flexible working arrangements to allow people to make time for family, reskilling, or a personal passion.

 

“Jobs become redundant from time to time but people do not need to”, concludes Ms Nair, warning that companies themselves have a responsibility to generate and sustain employability. Thus, her comments directly echo the results from the Manpower Group poll, pointing to a view of the future where there will be more work – for both humans and the machines.

 

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