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Upskilling to survive: is your business ready for the next wave of automation impact?

Analyst firm Garter released its first ever Magic Quadrant report on Robotic Process Automation (RPA)  this month, which is a sure sign of the growing prominence and impact of automation on every business.

As Information Age reports, “What’s significant about RPA, is how it’s effectively bypassed the traditional IT buyer, appealing directly to business users, with its emphasis on resource reduction, easy efficiency and accessibility of the scripting environments.”

The second wave of RPA

With UiPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere leading the pack (all of which partner with Enate), other experts are hailing the second wave of impact as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) power new RPA capabilities for better process discovery – and make sufficient advances to completely replace human jobs.

In a VentureBeat article about Transform 2019, two venture capitalists anticipated the impact of the second phase of RPA on humans.

“We’re at the beginning of this second phase,” says Guru Chahal, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.” By the time the third phase arrives, human participation will be at an all-time low – especially for vertical company growth.

Lan Xuezhao, founder and managing partner at Basis Set Ventures, drew a distinction between these early phases and the future third phase according to horizontal and vertical company growth respectively.

In a vertically-oriented third phase, “Instead of solving one problem, you actually build a robot that just solves literally bottom stack to the top stack — everything — and completely replaces humans,” she says. “[In] both dimensions, things are happening pretty fast, and iterating very rapidly,” she adds.

Guru and Lan envisage the extinction of human jobs.

Predictions about robots killing human jobs is common rhetoric in mainstream media. But will humans really be completely replaced? This first wave of automation and RPA hasn’t yet booted out humans. Interestingly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently more job openings (7.4 million) than there are unemployed Americans (6 million). 

If the first wave of RPA didn’t replace as many as previously thought, will the second wave? Many media reports claim so.

Oxford Economics says up to 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide will be lost to robots by 2030. Anaylst firm Forrester predicts job losses of 29% by 2030 with only 13% job creation to compensate.

However, some reports are more positive about the place of humans in the future of work. Mining data from more than 50 million job postings, ZipRecruiter found that AI created three times as many jobs as it destroyed in 2018.

Whereas job creation has been linked to new technologies, there’s also evidence of human work transitioning to new jobs.  

McKinsey Global Institute predicts that up to one-third of the American work force will have to switch to new occupations by 2030.

Retrain or burn out

Amazon announced this month that it will upskill 100,000 of its employees across the US, “dedicating over $700 million to provide people across its corporate offices, tech hubs, fulfilment centers, retail stores and transportation network with access to training programs that will help them move into highly skilled roles within or outside of Amazon.”

Interestingly, those “highly-skilled jobs” that require human intelligence are focused around customer experience.

Amazon says, “Within customer fulfilment, highly skilled roles have increased over 400%, including jobs like logistics coordinator, process improvement manager and transportation specialist within our customer fulfilment network.”

New jobs are being created. If automation frees humans from the mundanity of boring tasks, human intelligence can be applied to more highly-skilled work.

“The future of work is now and the challenge is not just adapting to new technologies, but adapting to the dynamism of the economy, which will only accelerate,” says Jason Tyszko, Vice President at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “Amazon is demonstrating the new role employers must play to counter that challenge, fostering a new relationship with workers where maintaining and growing their skills is an imperative for business success.”

“The scale and pace of the changes in the work force are unprecedented,” says Susan Lund, an economist at the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “They can’t hire off the street everyone they need. They have no choice but to retrain their own workers.”

Moving up the ladder

It’s clear there’s a disconnect between industry predictions and what companies are doing. The New York Times highlights Amazon’s approach: “Amazon isn’t trying to turn warehouse pickers into software engineers. Rather, its new program aims to move a large swath of workers up one or two rungs on the skills ladder, turning warehouse floor workers into IT technicians and low-level coders into data scientists.”

Amazon is moving human employees up the ladder rather than putting them on a new one - or indeed removing the ladder.

Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of people operations, told The New York Times that the retraining initiative was built on existing education programs at the company.

“When automation comes in, it changes the nature of work, but there are still pieces of work that will be done by people,” says Ardine. “You have the opportunity to up-skill that population so they can, for example, work with the robots.”

Automation will undoubtedly replace humans. But not completely. Human intelligence will be honoured and elevated in new ways we never thought possible. Now we’re working with robots, human work is going to get better. There’ll be human evolution rather than robot revolution.