How to Intelligently Address AI-Fueled Job Shifts
Workspan Daily
May 04, 2023
Key Takeaways

  • Automation’s growing presence. Large organizations such as Walmart are combining layoffs with new forms of automation to streamline their organizations. 
  • A new form  of automation. The “new automation” of the next few decades — with much more advanced robotics and AI — will widen the range of tasks and jobs that machines can perform. 
  • Upskilling and reskilling will be key. Organizations will have to prioritize training their existing workforce to transition them into new jobs that support the increased utilization of automation.  
  • Structural changes will outweigh job elimination. While it may soon eliminate millions of jobs for vehicle drivers and retail workers, automation will also create new ones in fields such as engineering and design. 

It’s quickly becoming a familiar sight in the business world: A company reveals a big investment in automation right after announcing a mass layoff. 

Walmart, the largest employer in the United States, recently became the latest example when it announced that it expects about 65% of its stores to be serviced by automation by the end of its fiscal year 2026. That prediction came just days after revealing plans to lay off more than 2,000 people at online-fulfillment facilities. 

The retailer has increasingly used its brick-and-mortar stores to handle online-order deliveries and invested heavily in automation to speed up order processing at its e-commerce fulfillment facilities. 

The company said automation would reduce its need for lower-paid roles, but it was unclear how it would affect its overall headcount. 

“As the changes are implemented across the business, one of the outcomes is roles that require less physical labor but have a higher rate of pay,” Walmart said in a filing. “Over time, the company anticipates increased throughput per person, due to the automation while maintaining or even increasing its number of associates as new roles are created.” 

Experts say that smaller organizations with an eye toward automation can take steps to follow the giant retailer’s path. 

The Future Starts Now 

The “new automation” of the next few decades — with much more advanced robotics and AI — will widen the range of tasks and jobs that machines can perform, writes Harry Holzer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.  

That will in turn eliminate millions of jobs for vehicle drivers and retail workers, as well as those for healthcare workers, lawyers, accountants, finance specialists, and many other professionals, he added. 

So how can organizations begin to plan for a future workforce that may look very different from its current one? 

According to Tracey Malcolm, global leader, future of work and risk at WTW, it’s important to start thinking about it now. 

“Our global ‘Dynamics of Work’ survey found that one-third of organizations are expecting and prepared for greater use of automation,” she said. 

The survey also found that such organizations are 1.5 times as likely to have already strengthened internal communication about change to employees and managers, and are 1.5 times as likely to be currently redesigning jobs or roles to reallocate work between employees, non-employees and new technologies. 

Adapting to Automation  

A major part of that reallocation of work will require the need for more training, which begs the question: How will labor skills shift to adapt to automation? 

Malcolm said employers are now showing a high demand for skills in relationship management, stakeholder management and business networking.  

While that may not be new, Malcolm noted that it was reflective of the pursuit of new business and operating models and partnerships that span within an organization and outside to external stakeholders and customers.  

“These soft skills are also very important within the technology space, requiring organizations that use AI models and technology to increasingly be able to communicate and explain their use, manage business requirements and implementation cycles,” she said. 

A Shift in the Jobs Available  

When considering the overall effects of automation on the workforce of the future, MIT scientist Andrew McAfee said: “I would put more emphasis on the way technology leads to structural changes in the economy, and less on jobs, jobs, jobs. The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.” 

So what new jobs will be available when automation moves more fully into the workplace?  

According to Malcom, trendspotters at WTW have already identified the following emerging jobs: 

  • Workplace strategy and design coordinator. This job implements the strategy to design, build and manage a safe, inspiring and sustainable work environment through coordinating roll-out activities and disseminating practical details to relevant stakeholders and communication platforms.   
  • Human factors and culture specialist. This job is responsible for defining and implementing how to work with human factors and culture to evaluate systemic risks and identify improvement opportunities to achieve outstanding employee well-being and health, safety, environment and quality (HSEQ) performance 
  • Engineering transformation lead. This job is responsible for designing, leading and delivering engineering transformation and improvement initiatives to ensure an efficient and future-fit engineering organization that is well prepared with the technology and tools to embrace energy challenges of tomorrow. 

No matter how many new jobs are ultimately created or lost to automation, however, the Paradox of Automation theory nonetheless predicts there will always be a need for workers. It states: The more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution of the operators. Humans are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.” 

Editor’s Note: Additional Content 

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