The workplace is changing as robots and artificial intelligence take over and staff become more disposable, writes Fearghal O’Connor
Picture a factory in darkness, full of robots, and just the sound of their mechanical arms and processes whirring as they build their product – more robots – without any human interaction.
To some it’s a vision of a highly productive future. To others it’s a vision of hell, where more and more humans are sidelined by advancing technology.
The Fanuc robotics factory in Japan is often cited as the ultimate example of a “lights-out factory” where there is little human involvement.
But its robot-building robots are only the most extreme symbol of just how different the future workplace – reinvented ever more quickly by technology – could be.
Closer to home there is a growing realisation that the future of work is being transformed in sometimes unexpected ways. Tech companies pump money into expensive, largely empty data centres, shops install automatic tellers to let customers check themselves out and, at airports, check-in agents are an increasingly distant memory as travellers print their boarding cards at home.
And even in workplaces where the digital revolution may seem remote, many workers face the reality that technology is rapidly wiping out one type of job even as it creates another.
“Technology is bringing about a major displacement of jobs,” says Peter Cosgrove, an expert on future trends and founder of the Future of Work Institute in Ireland.
“The speed that it is happening at is frightening. It can be somewhat dystopian when you hear of ‘lights-out’ factories, but the big changes will really become apparent as artificial intelligence (AI) begins to move more and more into senior roles and functions such as taxation, law and accounting,” says Cosgrove.
“People tend to focus on the idea of robots replacing more manual roles, but that is not where the big savings are for companies looking to maximise profit. It’s actually going to be the senior roles that get replaced.
“Technology is a positive, but unfortunately it will not be a positive for everyone. The challenge is going to be that technology will move a lot quicker than governments can make decisions.”
It’s not all bad news, says Cosgrove, especially for Ireland, A young and flexible workforce means we are well placed to change quickly as technology advances, he says.
Brian Evans, head of manufacturing for business banking at Bank of Ireland, believes that Ireland is in a good place to benefit from artificial intelligence and machine learning. He works closely with a large number of small and medium-sized Irish manufacturers and says that not only are they coping with technological advances, they are actually driving them.
“We’ve seen an increase of 36pc year-on-year from 2017 to 2018 in terms of Bank of Ireland business banking lending to manufacturing companies. For 2017 and the first six months of 2018 the investments were largely around factory construction, extending premises and fitting out, with the second half of 2018 more focused on working capital for materials and new business model development,” he says.
The bank has seen a big uplift in investment in automation equipment. Not just that, but a growing number of Irish companies are now providing the technology to others, says Evans.
“Very often we are providing working capital to a company who are building equipment for another company,” he says.
A big part of the reason Irish companies are succeeding in the area, says Evans, is the availability of skilled staff and the ready market that the presence of high tech and pharma multinationals provides. “We have €6.5bn to €7bn worth of multinational investment in Ireland at the moment – including our own multinationals. Those factory facilities and processes are requiring automation, AI and machine learning and Irish companies across the country are supplying that to them here, as well as in Europe. We have the skilled workforce to develop the solutions and that is where the value is,” he says.
He cites the example of “a very innovative company” in the southwest that develops vision systems for autonomous vehicles. Another company in Tipperary is developing automatic guided vehicles for moving products around factories.
“The machines bring the products from one factory process to the next while capturing data along the way, which is then communicated from machine to machine on the factory floor so that each process in the factory knows when the next product will arrive,” says Evans.
As that type of autonomous workplace becomes an increasing reality, workers will need to be agile to ensure they are not pushed aside, says independent economist Jim Power.
“I don’t believe robots are going to take all the jobs but the nature of work will continue to change and you will see certain industries displaced. The key to coping with that is through education and ensuring that we are producing workers for the new jobs and not the old jobs that are disappearing.”
All of the trends over the next 20 years and beyond are towards greater automation, says Power. But he believes that the real opportunities in the jobs market will be in creative or customer service-focused positions because of the inability of robots to compete in those roles with humans.
But is the education system geared up to produce the people who will be good at those roles?
The dominance of technology has meant that the powerful tech industry wants education to be ever more narrowly focused on producing technically adept workers.
Earlier this month Apple boss Tim Cook met US President Donald Trump and warned him that the tech giant was seeing a “mismatch” in the skills of college graduates and what it believes it needs in the future. “We believe strongly that it should be a requirement in the US for every kid to have coding before they graduate from K-12 [high school],” said Cook.
Power agrees that coding is a crucial skill but believes it is important that the Irish education system also produces people who are capable of a different type of creativity and critical thinking.
“That’s what will differentiate those that succeed and those that will become obsolete,” he says.
For this reason, says Power, a complete concentration on the maths and science-oriented so-called STEM subjects risks creating a one dimensional workforce and society.
“That is why I feel so strongly, for example, about history and geography being given less importance in the syllabus. I think that is a big mistake. People need all sorts of skills to survive.”
And for many workers the reality is that robots are the least of their worries. It’s people who are the problem. Businesses that are under severe competitive strain and constant pressure to cut costs – often because of the digital disruption that is turning so many sectors on their heads – are increasingly prone to see staff as a cost rather than a resource to be nurtured.
It can too often add up to a modern workplace that is not an easy place for semi-skilled, semi-professional or manual workers, particularly after they reach a certain age, according to employee representation specialist Dermot O’Loughlin, who advises and represents a growing number of people facing workplace issues.
He describes the case of a recent client who had worked in the logistics sector for a high tech company for many years.
“His job involved managing and overseeing the routes that trucks would take as they shipped items across Europe. He was very experienced at it and had worked for the company for many years. But when they upgraded the software in the trucks’ GPS system and it could all be done automatically they no longer needed his experience and knowledge. Instead, they hired a younger person on much lower wages to oversee it.”
It is an example of a modern workplace phenomenon that he says he once called “the 50-50” but now calls “the 45-45.”
“Older employees are more expensive,” he says. “The sad reality for a lot of people is that when you hit the age of 45 or when your salary goes over €45,000 you are a target for a cost-cutting management and for being ‘managed out’.”
O’Loughlin represents employees who face a range of problems at work, helping them to navigate the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court where necessary.
“When I look at my client list I see a very strong pattern in terms of age profile. Person after person in or around their 50s. My most recent clients were 54, 58, 53, 60, 51… I could go on. They were all people who were being ‘managed out’ as a workplace tactic. Every one of them was being pushed out to some degree and the general tactic is to make them feel unhappy.
“People will say that there is unfair dismissals legislation so a company can’t get away with that, but they use all sorts tricks to get around it. For example, they might insist on putting in a performance-improvement plan that, in reality, is designed to fail. By the time they get to the WRC the individual is worn down and they’ll take whatever offer they are given. That seems to be becoming more and more the reality of the modern workplace.”
O’Loughlin believes that it’s not just an issue for those who are losing their jobs but is also something that businesses need to be wary of in a tight labour market.
“Employment retention is very important and the type of environment where this happens is not one that people are going to want to remain in if they themselves can move on. If every couple of months you are having to train in new staff and then six months later they are gone there are huge costs to that. It’s a recipe for disaster when you have a high turnover of staff.”
A survey published last week by recruitment website Jobs.ie about the retail sector – where Main Street businesses are facing severe competition from online retailers – highlights how staff dissatisfaction is a big issue in that sector.
It found that 83pc of retail employers in Ireland view recruitment as a challenge, with a further 60pc facing challenges in employee retention. The survey gave a hint as to why workers might be reluctant to take jobs: when asked about their recruitment methods, 83pc of Irish retail employers said they only hire with a view for the job at hand and no expectation of employee progression or development. And 67pc of those surveyed don’t have a clear career progression pathway within their business.
It’s little wonder so that employees are often less than satisfied with their jobs in the modern retail sector. But the problem likely extends across many other sectors too.
Last year Bank of Ireland and HRM Recruit commissioned a report – conducted by Red C Research – which highlighted a significant nationwide skills gaps for Irish manufacturing SMEs. Despite 28pc of SME manufacturing companies hiring new staff since the start of 2018, more than 44pc said that maintaining and hiring a skilled workforce is a real concern for the future.
While there is no doubt that some people are being left behind by the advance of technology, Brian Evans argues that the opposite too is the case and that there is a need to attract more interesting and more skillful jobs so as to keep Ireland’s increasingly skillful and better educated workforce engaged. Ireland, he points out, has already exceeded an EU target to have 40pc of people between the age of 30 and 34 educated to degree level. “We have a lot of people who are overqualified for the job that they do,” says Evans. “So we definitely have the available workforce to grow in this area [high skilled manufacturing]. We wouldn’t be displacing jobs, we would be creating jobs that are more appropriate to the level of skills that we have in our workforce.”
The Government’s Future Jobs Ireland 2019 report – published last week – attempts to lay out both the opportunities and the challenges that all of this brings. “The revolution in automation and digital technologies will radically reshape industry as we know it,” it says. “Today’s school children will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist. Given the current and accelerating move towards automation and AI, it is likely that Ireland will need to rebalance its skills mix towards the most in-demand skills, for example advanced cognitive and social and emotional skills.
“Post-degree courses in AI, designed for industry, have recently commenced, as have shorter targeted diploma courses designed to inform the business community on the benefits available from digitalisation.”
But – despite the fact that Ireland is often trumpeted as having a highly skilled workforce – statistics contained in the government report illustrate the sheer number who are in danger of being left behind: just 48pc of the population has basic or above basic digital skills, well below the European average of 57pc.
Official attitudes to the problem, according to sources, is that time will be a healer because of the increased focus on digital skills in the early years of the education system. But there is a recognition that there is a cohort in the 45 to 65 age bracket – many of whom are in employment -that need to be specifically targeted with innovative forms of lifelong learning to help prepare them for and protect them against the changes wrought by the increased pace of automation and digital transformation.
Nevertheless, in an economy where all the key goals relate to generating more and more high – or even semi-skilled – jobs, there is too large a group of people in society who can never hope to properly share in the fruits of economic success.
The Government’s own statistics suggest that there are a large number of people who lack the basic level skills required to even apply for the jobs that government agencies are working so hard to create. For them – as technology advances – the workplace of the future could be a very difficult place indeed.
Despite the fact that Ireland is often trumpeted as having a highly skilled workforce, statistics contained in a government report illustrate the sheer number who are in danger of being left behind
Sunday Indo Business