Innovations in Automation Demand Employee Upskilling and Soft Skill Development

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the coming days of automation–but few are willing to admit the harsh reality that those days are already here. According to a study published in 2015 by two professors from Ball State University, 87 percent of all manufacturing jobs lost from 2000 to 2010 weren’t due to globalization and overseas labor, but to automation. Overall, there exist about five million fewer manufacturing jobs today than in 2000, a problem that government leaders have been ignoring by “recklessly putting their heads in the sand,” according to Martin Bryant of the Manchester Digital council.

William H. Davidow writing for the Harvard Business Review, says that the promise of “making America great again” by reducing business regulations and fixing trade deals may help some, but are unlikely to fully address the challenges faced by the middle class.

“The problem is that we are now living in a bipolar economy,” writes Davidow, “with a traditional economy at one end and an autonomous economy at the other. The traditional economy is prone to inflation; the autonomous economy toward deflation.”

Davidow makes the observation that for all of the national conversation over manufacturing jobs, they only make up 9 percent of the workforce. The services sector, on the other hand, makes up 80 percent of the workforce, and automation is hitting here just as hard. Driverless cars and trucks are currently set to kill the most jobs in the US with ripple effects touching tangent industries–the future of auto insurance is uncertain in a world where cars drive themselves, for example.

A recent study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) corroborates Davidow’s analysis. Bloomberg reports the IMF’s findings:

“Labor’s share of national income declined in 29 of the world’s 50 biggest economies between 1991 and 2014, the IMF said in a study released Monday… Analysis suggests “technology is the largest contributor to the change in labor shares in the large majority of countries,” [the IMF report] said… The IMF’s finding is significant because economists have been debating what’s to blame for decades of sluggish wage growth. President Donald Trump has blamed trade with countries such as China and Mexico for hurting American workers and hollowing out the nation’s manufacturing sector. The IMF study suggests technology is a bigger driver.”

A Lack of Upskilling Opportunities in the Workplace

Of course, we have to realize that automated processes aren’t all doom and gloom. When you think of the fact that the average global organization relies on about four different payroll systems, for example, it’s in the public’s best interest to adopt automated systems for accuracy sake. The same could be said about the prediction that driverless cars will save 32,000 lives a year.

The question then becomes, how do we cope with innovation that clearly benefits consumers, but also promises to change the workforce? Reporting on a recent survey from Australian-based ICT consulting firm Ajilon, Dylan Bushell-Embling via Technology Decisions presents some interesting statistics concerning upskilling opportunities in the workplace:

  • While a whopping 97 percent of Australian workers believe it is imperative to be upskilled in the face of widespread automation, a full 33 percent do not feel prepared to embrace the tech revolution in Australian workplaces.
  • 77 percent of respondents report that there is at least one technology skill they are interested in learning about to further their career prospects, with the most popular choices being data analytics (34 percent), web development (34 percent) and cybersecurity (31 percent).
  • The number of respondents experience some form of barrier to learning new technology skills is high at 68 percent, with 36 percent citing a lack of ongoing training and career development resources as the primary barrier.
  • What’s worse, 22 percent of respondents claim the businesses they work for exhibit a lack of focus on the importance of teaching technical skills to their employees, while 15 percent believe that senior management teams themselves exhibit a lack of understanding of the importance of that technology in the first place.

The thing to realize is that, whether you’re a business owner, a manager, or an employee, surviving the current wave of automation is going to come down to upskilling. Business owners need to be providing these opportunities, and employees need to be seeking them out.

Taking Advantage of Opportunity

Beyond implementing upskilling programs within the workplace, businesses need to clearly communicate with employees to assuage fears about automation in the workplace. Research from Capita Resourcing’s “Workplace More Human” report finds that 67 percent of employees fear that the rise of robotics will make the workplace less sociable and friendly. The biggest fear, understandably, was loss of jobs (36 percent), losing social relationships with colleagues (27 percent), and having to upskill/train to do another job (23 percent).

Interestingly, the organizations responding in the same survey did not seem to share the same concerns, with 91 percent of business respondents considering automation to be an opportunity rather than a risk.

Jo Matkin of Capita Resourcing stresses the importance of communication in bridging the gap between an organization’s trajectory and employee fears.

“It is vital that organisations clearly communicate what their automated business would look like with their employees,” he says, “including how it will impact their role, workplace and the possible benefits it presents in terms of, for example, upskilling, further training and freeing up employee time to focus on more creative, less menial activities.”

What Can Employees Do?

In Dom Price’s article for CNBC, the contention is made that the current paradigm should be viewed through the lens that most business owners are viewing it: opportunities abound. His advice is geared mainly toward college students but is pertinent for anybody participating in the economy. He offers up three main pieces of advice:


  • Master teamwork, be a team player. Since automation will do the majority of heavy lifting and menial tasks in the future, most of the jobs people will retain won’t be siloed. Price makes the contention that automation is driving a shift from the traditional top-down business model toward more autonomous teams and a bottom-up approach to solving problems. Learning to effectively communicate and be a team player is essential to thriving in this type of environment.
  • Flex your curiosity. While machines are great at performing rote tasks and maximizing processes that have already been established, the one thing that machines cannot yet do is innovate. The most valuable employees are going to be the ones who figure out how to use machines in ways that have not yet been thought up, and consistently embrace the mental challenges that others would rather not deal with.
  • Keep it simple. It’s easy to become intimidated by the rate of technological growth and feel like the world around us is becoming too complex to keep up with. However, simplifying a situation, your viewpoint, or even a technical process requires you take a step back and look at the difference between the sum of parts and the parts themselves. You don’t have to know how every little thing works, but if you focus on the big picture and the functions of components, you’ll find yourself less lost in the technology as well as your own thoughts.

When it comes down to it, teamwork, curiosity, and critical thinking are all different types of soft skills that graduates and prospective students should be focusing on sharpening. Hard skills like mathematics, computation, etc.–these are things that automation has set out to master. Soft skills, on the other hand, are what will separate the average employee from the great ones.

By embracing upskilling and the development of soft skills across industries, businesses and employees the world over can begin to breathe a little easier in the face of automation.

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Andrew HeikkilaAndrew Heikkila, a tech enthusiast, and writer from Boise, Idaho, and a frequent contributor to Innovation Excellence. He also writes for Tech Crunch. You can follow him @AndyO_TheHammer

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Andy Heikkila

Andy is a writer, artists, futurist, and story-teller from Boise, ID. When he's not writing, you can find him running, eating a habanero pizza, or watching Pulp Fiction. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer Humanity is its own worst enemy. Innovation and technology can save us from ourselves.




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  1. Michael Kotowski on April 20, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Great post! Not unlike manual laborers during the start of the Industrial Revolution, today’s workforce needs to be re-trained to utilize and optimize Automation, Robots, AI… in complement not simply displacement!

    • Andy Heikkila on April 20, 2017 at 2:14 pm

      Thank you for reading Michael! I daresay there’s a sort of neo-luddite attitude gripping the world when it comes to automation, and I feel the energy being spent resisting this change would be much better utilized transitioning into it instead. Cheers!

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