Now is a good time for US workers. They are operating from a position of strength as a continuing shortage of labor creates greater demand and incentives higher wages for their services.
But these gains are temporary, he warns Nada Sandersdistinguished professor of supply chain management at Northeastern.
Unsatisfied demand and rising costs for skilled labor are convincing employers to automate their operations at an accelerated pace, which will result in fewer job opportunities for many of the workers who seem to be doing so well today.
“There is critical demand for workers in every industry, from hospitality to restaurants, from nursing to truck drivers, and so on,” says Sanders. “But that leverage will quickly shrink and go away.
“This is a red alert for workers who need to understand that many of their jobs will be eliminated by technology,” says Sanders. “And once they leave, they won’t come back.”
The momentary shortage of manpower is partly driven by “The great resignation” this has been spurred by the millions of American workers who quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chain shortages and other pandemic-related business disruptions are also contributing to the dramatic shift towards automation by US companies, Sanders says.
“In fall 2019, before COVID hit, I was talking to companies about their hesitation to go digital due to the amount of money it would cost,” says Sanders. “But now we are in another era. We’ve been through this pandemic for two years and these companies are smart. They say they will no longer be caught with their pants down. Of the companies I spoke to, they are all investing a significant increase, from 5% to 10% of revenues, in automation. “
A World Economic Forum poll of nearly 300 companies around the world last year found that 43% planned to reduce workers in favor of new technologies.
“The prices were astronomical, but now the technology is more common and is actually affordable for small businesses,” Sanders says of the push for automation. “Companies are aware that if they make this investment, they don’t have to pay for benefits, social security, and health care [in terms of automated systems] they don’t care about COVID and the upcoming variants “.
The development shows some obvious signs, he says Tucker Marion, an associate professor of northeastern tech entrepreneurship, who notes how national retailers, including CVS, and restaurants like McDonald’s, have replaced cashiers with self-service kiosks. This is just the beginning.
“You have those jobs that can be replaced by automation, which is reliable and doesn’t require a lot of technicians to maintain it,” says Marion. “You’ll see it in grocery stores, warehouses, restaurants. Workers have to think about what skills they will develop for the job. “
Employers want workers who can provide specific skills that were not required a few years ago. That’s why Amazon offers free classes to employees, Sanders says, in addition to educational programs for employees on data center maintenance and technology, IT, user experience, and research design.
It is also the reason why the Roux Institute at Northeastern was launched in 2019: to train high-tech workers capable of sparking a digital renaissance in Maine, a state that was struggling to train workers capable of growing and maintaining cutting-edge industries.
“When job offers are presented, it is reasonable to ask, ‘Is it possible to get retraining, training, tuition or something like that as part of the pay package?'” Says Sanders. “If I were a worker, in my job negotiation, I would like to have the ability to retrain and improve skills so that I am ready for this new era that is absolutely coming and is coming very fast.”
Sanders notes that a number of innovations are already changing the workplace in the United States, including:
- Locatean agile four-legged robot sold by Boston Dynamics, capable of performing dangerous surveying tasks on construction sites.
- Dark shops, or fulfillment microcentres, which deliver deliveries to nearby customers. Soon, Sanders imagines, these stores will be run by robots.
- Amazon Go stores, where smart cameras and software track customers’ purchases and charge them when they leave the premises, making the checkout kiosk superfluous.
Sanders and Marion recall the message of “Robot proof: higher education in the age of artificial intelligence”, In which the President of the Northeast Joseph E. Aoun proposed ways to educate future generations to thrive in the automated economy. People should invest in areas of perception and creativity, strengths that machines cannot yet match, Marion notes.
What are the jobs of the future?
“It’s a big question,” says Marion. “For the foreseeable future, there will be a need for highly technical backgrounds and skills – materials science, computer science, engineering, analysis, physics, medicine, biomedical – where we are combining different fields together. Interdisciplinary technical skills will be extremely valuable because technology will change and being able to have combinations of skills in different technical fields is very important “.
Business adoption of automated systems is a movement that transcends current supply chain deficiencies, says Sanders.
“I really see it as a community service – we need to get the word out to the workers,” says Sanders. “What you don’t want is to be caught in a situation where, in a year or two, this job is gone, and you no longer have the leverage and you don’t have the skills to compete in the new job market.”
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