Automation and the Workplace: 4 Industries Most at Risk

Automation is coming. Robots will take over your job. Fact or fiction? Think about your workplace. Is there any evidence proving it’s true? It doesn’t appear so. Must be fiction then, right? Wrong. Think outside your workplace. Cars drive themselves. Machines read X-rays. Chatbots answer your support-related questions 24-7. Thousands of algorithms are out there automating work as you know it. Sure, it increases productivity and improves our lives. But it’s taking over job functions humans perform now. The future economic forecast is grim. 50 percent of work activities globally have the potential to be automated. Currently demonstrated technologies can do this. We no longer have to search for it. It’s at our fingertips. And companies are investing more in the future of automation. So, are you doomed? Should you quit your job today?

Not so fast.

You need to know what work activities have the potential to be automated, first. Secondly, you need to see if your industry will be affected. And you need to be ready to adapt to the changes. But first, let’s see what all the fuss is surrounding this automation stuff.

Automation: What Is It, and What Is It Good for?

The allure of an automated life. You benefit from it each day. Think about the last time you filled out an online form. How much of the form was auto-filled? Didn’t it save you time? Or using an electronic pass at the toll road instead of waiting in line? Technology is designed to satisfy our desires, needs, and wants. But in the end, it creates obstacles to our daily lives. The workplace is one. Automation is taking over daily tasks and activities previously done by humans. And the trend is only gaining momentum. We are only in the first wave of automation. The third extends to the mid-2030s.

But what does automation look like? Don’t think in terms of giant robots. The best way to understand automation is to think about repetition. What do you do repetitively at work? Is there a way to take a repeated task and implement a system without having to do it yourself? Find something you do more than once. Folding a pamphlet and stuffing it into a letter. Can a machine do this? Yes. But is it only restricted to physical activities? No. Think of a marketing firm. They have a massive email marketing campaign. The firm could employ hundreds of people to run it. Or, one person can write an introductory email, a follow-up email, and a response, to go out automatically.

Does the firm fire all those marketers? No. It frees up their time so they can do more valuable work. Workers use their critical thinking and problem-solving skills to address other issues. Automation saves time and diverts resources elsewhere. It allows companies to be more agile and solve problems in a quick manner. Okay, great for the company, you think. Increased efficiency, lower costs, and productivity. It’s the future. Fine. But what does it mean for you? Will your job be automated and what can you do about it?

Let’s look at the four industries with the highest potential for jobs to be automated.

Construction Industry

Physical work seems a good place to start. It’s about predictability. You have to improve efficiency on repeatable tasks. A construction site is a prime example of repeatable tasks. Humans get tired, bored, and burned out. The quality of the work is affected. Robots are different. A repeated task, done by a robot, has the same rate and quality for an indefinite period. Automated systems and robots have much higher productivity levels than humans. Construction Robotics, for instance, designed MULE (material unit lift enhancer), for handling and placing material. But here’s the catch: robots aren’t completely taking over. Sure, there will be a lot of autonomous equipment on job sites. But humans are still needed. Adapt to these changes and learn to work in congruence with the technology and you can survive.

Manufacturing Industry

This one will hurt. The industry has undergone massive automation changes, and it won’t stop. 64% of the hours spent on manufacturing-related activities are automatable. Ouch. Some factories are 100% automated. The number of factories adopting similar strategies will increase. Factories can be run by a few people with the rest of the operation performed by automated machines. It’s the nature of the work done at these factories. Most of the actions are repeatable and predictable. A machine can do the same work, but with higher productivity levels. Think of a manufacturing plant. There’s an assembly line. Workers package and label products. You accomplish tasks with speed, precision, and endurance. Seems perfect for a robot. And it is. It’s the fastest growing automated industry.

Food Service Industry

Have you gone to McDonald’s recently? How about Panera Bread? How did you order your food? A kiosk, right? It’s happening everywhere. Go to the Shake Shack in New York City and see its kiosk-only, cashless ordering system. It’s both on the low-end and high-end fast food chains. It’s also extending into sit-down restaurants as well.

Okay, fine, but humans still prepare the meal. They cook it, they assemble it, and they deliver it to you. So, there’s some human interaction. True. But how long will it last? Here’s a look at the future with Eatsa, a restaurant who uses automation as its business model. You order your meal online before you arrive. You wait outside a row of cubbies. When your meal is done, your name comes up on the cubby. You take it and sit down. Voila, no humans!

And it’s not only on the consumer-facing side of the industry. Dishwashers, food preppers and sous chefs are the next to go with robotic restaurants. Only time will tell, but the trend shows less human interaction.

Retail Industry

Let’s do a thought experiment. Think about how many times you used Amazon last year to buy a product. A cell phone charger. A protein powder. It felt great not to have to leave your house and have your item shipped to you in a few days, right?

Well, automation is critical here. There are two processes of automation in the retail industry. First, retail chains automate many tasks, such as automated checkout services for customers. No need to have a human check them out or bag their items. Robots are also critical for stocking shelves and checking inventory in factories. Secondly, retail has moved online. E-commerce sector has boomed while department stores and other traditional retail stores have declined since 2002.

But does this mean all retail stores will close? Will you have to only shop online now? No. Some companies try to give their customers an experience while shopping at their stores. They want to provide the best customer satisfaction when you enter the shop. Think of Apple. They automate many tasks. However, they still have a lot of staff in their stories. Look for similar opportunities if you’re in the retail industry.

Adapt to the Automated World

The outlook is grim. But you have options. You don’t need to hand in your two weeks notice tomorrow. The robots aren’t knocking on your company’s door. Relax.

But be prepared for what is ahead. You can take steps to ensure you have a job in the automated workplace. Define what skills you bring to the table. Try to understand what you want out of your career and how you can get there. This is the first step in being a successful leader for yourself and will help you adapt to the ever-changing world of workplace automation. Your tasks may change, but it’s up to you to look for automated patterns in your role and adapt to new technology.

Make yourself indispensable by being ahead of the automation curve. Employers will recognize your ability to adapt and work with new technology. If you can’t beat them, join them. New opportunities will arise as technology advances. But you must be flexible. 

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