Researcher: Automation will replace workers’ tasks, not jobs

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As the development of technology accelerates, workers might be concerned over displacement by automation, but they really shouldn’t be.

That was the message at the North Bay Leadership Council 2016 Economic Insight Conference on June 9 at the Sheraton Hotel Petaluma.

Most companies adopt new technologies to increase efficiency, safety and customer satisfaction, not to replace their labor force, said keynote speaker Michael Chui, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of McKinsey, a global management consulting firm. Technology can improve our lives while taking away the boring, repetitive labor, and workers can be trained to do other jobs.

“We’ve always been able to create new things for people to do,” Chui said.

Chui is a co-author of a McKinsey report, “Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation,” which found that many jobs will be refined rather than eliminated by technological advances, at least in the short term. Automation will take over activities, but not replace workers.

“It’s rare to remove a person and drop in a robot,” he said.

The report gives the examples of ATMs and automated check-in-kiosks at airline ticketing areas, which have not eliminated bank tellers or airline check-in staff, but have freed them up for other tasks.

Chui predicts that automation will affect every job. McKinsey research analyzed about 2,000 different activities workers perform and 18 different capabilities that could possibly be automated, like picking things up, cleaning and maintenance, and greeting people. The report also suggests that as many as 45 percent of the activities workers perform could be automated by adopting current technology. That includes not just low-skill, low-wage jobs, but CEOs, financial managers and physicians as well.

“Mortgage-loan officers, for instance, will spend much less time inspecting and processing rote paperwork and more time reviewing exceptions, which will allow them to process more loans and spend more time advising clients,” the report said.

On the flip side, there are many lower-wage jobs where only a small percentage of their activities could be automated, like home health aides and landscape workers.

Automation can also increase safety, with drones carrying tools for a worker atop a telephone pole, as suggested by Michael Beaudoin, who runs accelerator and venture programs at AT&T, and also spoke at the conference.

“We are also providing training for employees whose jobs that will get phased out, in something they find interesting,” he said.

As baby boomers retire, reducing the workforce, adopting automation may also be one way for companies to increase growth, Chui said.

“In advanced economies people are getting older and the number of workers is declining and productivity has slowed. How to get more work done? Get machines to do it.”

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