Robots and the world of work – How far is too far?

Blgpic2Despite mind-blowing leaps in technology, and a collision with jobs, all roads still lead back to the hub (a go-to place for teams to meet, and administration to happen). The “new office hub” is just more flexible, with hot-desks, meeting areas and an ICT platform that can integrate a dispersed workforce with data and systems.

People can work remotely from home, or create their own office via cafes, airports, hotels (or even a dentist chair). All you need is a tablet or smart phone (and wireless connection) to share data across a network. For self-employed people, consultants and a multitude of others, it’s a gift. Whilst the discipline and isolation is not for everyone, it’s so easy to attend client visits from home, and divide your time between home and meetings to optimise productivity.

This creates a culture where people are measured by performance and outcomes (rather than time in an office). They have the flexibility to balance work with family, which tends to boost creativity and input with the work they do. The trade-off is they stay connected to work for longer and are measured and renumerated on what they achieve.

Like most things in life, nothing stands still.  Who knows whether this model will even exist in 2 years’ time. For now, we can only deal with what we can see. The office will not disappear – it will simply be wherever you are. Employers who can cater to these trends, and offer more flexible packages will ultimately attract a wider pool of talent and support the modern employee.

Robots and the world of work – How far is too far?

The August job numbers showed a marked upturn in the right direction (Department of Employment reported a 3% rise in job ads, while ABS unemployment fell to 6.1%, with 121,000 new jobs created). Roy Morgan September figures were was less optimistic (9.9% unemployment, with a further 8.3% underemployed). Gary Morgan said “The estimates indicate ashift of over 5% of employed Australians from full-time to part-time work”.

At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the rapid loss of jobs to technology taking place across the board. At the Top, we continue to watch low-skilled jobs disappear, with hundreds of candidates applying for the same job, in many cases.

The debate on the future of labour is in vogue again, with technology being linked to job losses, and people asking where the new jobs will come from.  The difference this time is the impact on almost every form of labour. Process workers are being replaced by technology at a pace the world has never seen before. The ease of using smart- phones for banking (and almost everything else) has led to fewer jobs. Robots are now seeping into other industries as well. Wired magazine recently led with the headline:

“Robots have mastered news writing. Goodbye journalism.”

Jobs in the cut-throat manufacturing space have fallen from one in four in the 70s, to around one in ten today, with a shift in demand to high-level specialists. The Australian Workforce and Productivity report found 87% of manufacturing jobs now require a post-school qualification, but almost half (45%) of the workforce do not have one. The report predicts the next phase will see increased demand for skilled tradespeople, technicians, and professionals, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and said “If this issue is not addressed it is likely that firm productivity and competitiveness will be severely compromised.”

These trends combine to make this era more disruptive than ever before, especially when you add tight margins, rising costs and overseas competition into the mix.

Executive Outlook is our exclusive study of local conditions (based on in-depth interviews with business leaders). 

The No. 1 challenge amongst the group in 2014 was a need to generate new business in the face of fierce competition, followed by tight margins and rising costs.

The theme underpinning the ADC Forum Hayman Island Leadership Retreat centred around the collision of job intensity and productivity on a scale never seen before, and in particular, what this means for youth employment. The unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds in Australia is 15%. In Europe it is as much as 60%. So, where will these young people find a job?

Research from Brotherhood of St Laurence has found over 300,000 young Australians are underemployed. “Over half of the jobs young people are getting are casual in nature. When combined with those who are unemployed, this adds up to over 500,000 young people, who are struggling to get a foothold in the world of work”. (RCSA Newshub 9/9/14)

The other point highlighted was an emerging divide between those with a job and those without, and a mismatch in the workforce. For unskilled workers, these are worrying times with fewer jobs. The digital disruption has also moved the goalposts for those in work. Workers equipped with the skills and attributes to transition into new jobs will add value, whilst those unable to adapt will inevitably struggle.

Talented people with the right skills-set are thriving in the new economy and in huge demand, with various high-tech sectors struggling to find the talent they need to fill vacancies.

Leadership is no longer restricted to a few charismatic individuals. In her book, Leadership is Upside Down, Silvia Damiano says “The information age has been superseded by the ‘imagination age’ where ideas, rather than knowledge, equal power”.

To an extent, knowledge is irrelevant, because everyone can access it. New leaders need the special powers to inspire others and the integrity to champion their values. They make a difference through collaboration, innovation and an ability to navigate complex and uncertain environments. These attributes characterise the type of leader who could thrive in the ‘imagination age’.

It is this difference in value created by people with talent that cannot be replaced, in an age where either talent, capital (or both) will inevitably come out on top.

Ultimately, technology doesn’t cost jobs – it just moves them around. Therefore, robotics, automation and cloud computing will raise productivity and generate jobs. As technology changes the scope of jobs and creates new ones, many of these new jobs are likely to be in industries that haven’t even been invented yet.

In the longer term, as more Baby Boomers retire, the question will be less ‘where will the jobs come from?’ and more ‘where will the workers come from?’ By around 2030, ABS modelling shows there will be more Australians over 65 (than under the age of 15). This will shift the dynamics from a job shortage to a worker shortage.

Meanwhile, the digital disruption is alive and well, and the issue right now is a lack of jobs. All political leaders can do is soften the impact, and introduce more active labour market policies to address skills mismatches and raise participation. This will entice those who have given up looking for a job back into the labour force, rather than forcing them to apply for jobs that don’t match, in order to access benefits.