Rise of the Robots? Understanding Technological Unemployment

No one works as a bowling pinsetter nor delivers ice anymore. You can even order fast food from a kiosk or check into your hotel room and never talk to a person. There is no doubt that technology has eliminated jobs. Technological unemployment, as it is called, is seemingly inevitable. In some careers, human workers will be replaced with automation that performs tasks better, faster and cheaper.

So, the question is, are robots coming for my job? While fears of a “robot takeover” makes for a good headline, it’s important to take a realistic look at the issue before needlessly worrying:

Technological unemployment risks vary by profession. Research conducted by McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s top consulting firms, finds that “the activities most susceptible to automation are physical ones in highly structured and predictable environments, as well as data collection and processing.” Assembly line workers, for example, have a higher potential for automation than assembly line managers. In general, lower-wage jobs are more at risk than higher-wage jobs. 

Even if some jobs can be automated, employers may choose not to do so. A Forbes article for September 2018 points out that “the “smarter” the machine, the more expensive it will be” and that “simple economics may forever protect some of what people do in manufacturing….” MIT economist David Autors also argues that, in some cases, automation protects jobs by allowing employees to focus on more valuable activities. For example, the dramatic increase in ATMs during the last few decades lead to the hiring of more bank tellers. Since banker tellers now spent less time exchanging money, they could spend time developing long term relationships with their customers. The cheaper cost of operating a bank also lead to the opening of more banks and the hiring of more tellers in general. 

For those who still have concerns that robots will take their jobs, there are a few active steps one can take to minimize the chance of technological displacement. Working to develop soft skills is by far the most effective method. Today’s robots, despite their sophistication, lack the ability to have empathy, think creatively, cultivate relationships or manage employees. Some activities still require the human touch. While my Roomba can vacuum far better than I can; it can’t conduct a public relations campaign (yet).

As a working professional, it’s important to pay close attention to the market landscape and adapt to changes in the business environment. However, don’t expect robots to be running the Chamber of Commerce any time soon. 

 

Mary Louise VanNatta, APR, CAE is the owner and CEO of VanNatta Public Relations, a PR, event planning and consulting firm in Salem, Oregon. prsalem.com

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