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Infrastructure and Operations

Automation: Competition for Work or a Job Creation Engine?

New study projects machines will automate away some work, but generate more jobs than they displace

Concerned machines are going to steal your job one day? If new research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) is any indication, by 2025 machines will perform more tasks than humans. But there’s a bright silver lining: The machines could very well introduce more jobs than they take.

According to the WEF, the evolution of machines and machine learning will displace 75 million jobs but create 133 million new jobs—for a net creation of 58 million jobs.

These projections are part of a new report from WEF, “The Future of Jobs 2018,” which looks at how enterprises can improve the quality and productivity of current tasks completed by staff, as well as how to prepare workers for potential emerging roles. The research is based on a survey of more than 300 chief human resources officers and strategy executives from companies across 12 industries and 20 developed and emerging economies.

The report indicates that machines are currently conducting 29 percent of tasks and human staff the remaining 71 percent. But by 2025, machines will be conducting more than half of all tasks. This, the WEF contends, requires an urgent focus on reskilling workers, embracing remote work, and providing safety nets for at-risk workers.

Indeed, 54 percent of employees at large companies will need significant reskilling and upskilling to fully harness the growth opportunities offered by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, the report states. At the same time, just over half of the companies surveyed said they plan to reskill only those employees who are in key roles, while just one-third of companies plan to reskill at-risk workers.

About 50 percent of companies said they anticipate their full-time workforce will shrink by the year 2022 because of automation. Interestingly, however, almost 40 percent expect to extend their workforces, and more than 25 percent anticipate automation to create new roles in their enterprises.

That’s quite a bit of disruption in the next few years.

According to the WEF, roles such as data analysts and scientists, software and applications developers, and e-commerce and social media specialists will experience increased demand across all industries—roles based on or enhanced by the use of technology.

“Roles that leverage distinctly ‘human skills,’ such as sales and marketing professions, innovation managers, and customer service workers, are also set to experience increasing demand,” the WEF report explained. “Jobs expected to become redundant include routine-based white-collar roles, such as data entry clerks, accounting, and payroll clerks.”

Economists estimate that automation will create a net 58 million new jobs by 2025.

Despite the predicted job growth, WEF researchers said they expect a shift in the quality, location, format, and permanency of new roles. By 2022, they expect businesses will open up to more alternative, flexible work arrangements, expanding their use of contractors doing task-specialized work, utilizing remote staffing, and even relocating offices to improve their access to talent.

Compared to similar, and earlier, studies designed to look at the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on jobs, the outlook for job creation is much more positive because businesses have a much greater understanding of the opportunities made available by technology. At the same time, the huge disruption automation is expected to bring will require close attention from leaders in the public and private sector.

“It is critical that business take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling, that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning, and that governments create an enabling environment to facilitate this workforce transformation,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF. “This is the key challenge of our time.”

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