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The robots are coming - quick call HR!

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy December 21, 2013
Advances in robotics imply that jobs will be lost. Research says otherwise. But what about HR? How should it respond?

As part of Workday's Predict and Prepare 2014, I was at once both mesmerised and faintly amused at the short discussion around robotics and its impact on HR practices and policies. The discussion starts at 32 mins 30 secs into the hour long show. Vinnie Mirchandani says: New wave manufacturing pioneered in Germany and Japan is moving to the US and will suddenly confront HR with managing man-machine interactions with humanoid robots, machine learning and even over-rides human decisions. 


By way of explanation, Mirchandani put out the recent example of Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon demonstrating Amazon Prime Air as an alternative delivery method that circumvents the delivery driver while ensuring early delivery. It's not a done deal and today only represents a glimpse into the future. 

Anyhoo, this got conflated and spun around to 'Heck if I was a UPS driver I'd be onto my union' kind of thing. Naomi Bloom managed to find a contingent worker angle on it at which point show host Bill Kutik's sense of humor kicked in with reference to the canteen lunch menu choices for our future robotic workforce. I can already see the 'Would you like WD-40 with that?' jokes mushrooming around the workplace.

Good for giggles or reality bites?

The serious bit in the middle of the conversation centered around skills requirements and whether the introduction of robots displaces the workforce in a disruptive manner. Hence Mirchandani's question about unions jumping in. In my view this is a FUD discussion.  Of course vested labor interests will at least query Amazon's proposed new delivery method as they would any new working practice. But then there is another side to that coin.

The old becomes new - again

Process automation has been on the business agenda ever since I can remember. Back in the 1970s, the vertically integrated British automotive industry was destroyed largely because management was not prepared to adopt new robotic driven techniques that had already transformed both Japanese and German manufacture. Today, robot assembly in automotive is de rigeur in all but a few facilities around the world.

When the CNC machine was introduced, skilled tradesmen were highly skeptical as to its viability and at first they were proven right as accuracy and repeatability were far from a given. Thirty years on and CNC machining is an established part of the physical engineering landscape.

Were jobs lost? Yes and no. High grade teaching around mechanical and electrical engineering skills has never gone away. Did skills requirements change? Absolutely. But has the effect of automation meant an overall reduction in skills needed in the workplace? That's a debatable point.

If we take Apple as an example, their manufacturing contractors in China still need many thousands of workers despite using mass produced precision parts in the manufacture of their devices and computers. Elsewhere, I've seen inventive use of technology to accelerate and improve product design among engineering led businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Regardless of your position on this topic, I am more taken by research undertaken by the International Federation of Robotics that claims there is a positive impact on job creation when robotics are introduced. The highlights:

  • Direct employment due to robotics is 4 to 6 million jobs created in world manufacturing through 2011, represented by 3 to 5 jobs created per robot in use.
  • Indirect employment created as a result of robots increases this number to 8 - 10 million jobs.
  • It is projected that 1.9 to 3.5 million jobs will be created by robots in the next eight years.
  • When manufacturing jobs are saved, jobs throughout the community where the factories are located are also saved.

These are not huge numbers but they are significant. How does this happen? Again, from the report:

The effect of the application of robots is a rebalancing of world manufacturing economics enabling traditionally higher labor rate countries to compete in world markets.  Greater competitiveness results in increased sales of manufactured products leading to increased number of manufacturing jobs and creates higher paying support jobs. This is a direct result in the re-shoring of manufacturing that the United States is experiencing today. The study provides data illustrating where automation displaces people in manufacturing it almost always increases output, creates new markets and generates the need for downstream jobs to get the product to the consumer.

The real question however is not whether jobs are created but what kinds of job and whether those jobs require more or less skills development. It is too easy to simply default to the notion that deskilling through automation has the knock on effect of leading to less demand for downstream assembly or service skills.

If we look at today's automotive industry as an example, it is hard not to be amazed at some of the ways in which technologies like telemetry and sensors are becoming mainstream. When I hire a car in the US, I want the rearview camera indicating obstacles in the rearview mirror. When it comes, I will want windscreen HUD.

You can argue that the repetitive precision output required of the component parts is something that only an automated, robot driven production line can produce. Yet someone, somewhere has to dream up, design and implement these technologies. That takes skill and if, along the way, we remove the mundane and un-necessary while imbuing reliability and guaranteed performance, then surely that's a net good.

Of greater importance I think is the need for HR to adapt to these kinds of change. The fact we are seeing advanced technologies not just at the largest companies in the world but permeating throughout industry should be telling HR that the whole of the world is changing - not just niches here and there. That alone should be enough to spur a rethink about many aspects of managing and developing a fresh approach to HR that both recognises and encourages the development of new skills as a strategic part of business development. We used to call that apprenticeship...

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