Is COVID Accelerating the Automation Curve?
We all know it’s coming. We can see it in the self-checkout stations in our local supermarket, the one-touch delivery service from Amazon and even from the robotic lawnmowers in our local parks. But what does the next 10 years look like for automation and it's affect on jobs and job loss. Will the use of automation be accelerated due to COVID-19?
The rise of robots has been a threat to many employees for years with the use of artificial intelligence being less costly for businesses. But the pandemic has brought on another important reason for business to consider automation – less touching and fewer face-to-face interactions which can spread the disease.
Using robots increases social distancing and greatly reduces the number of employees that physically must come into work. It makes sense for large and small companies to want to safeguard their business against this new way of living.
Predictions made before the pandemic suggested that around 30% of jobs would be impacted due to automation but it looks like that figure might increase dramatically.
For retail, hospitality and even office workers, this is not good news.
Retail and Beyond
The retail industry seems to have seen the biggest rise in automation since the beginning of the pandemic. With companies such as Amazon offering a no-touch service where customers can shop from their own homes, many other companies have followed suit and some traditional high street retailers have been taken over by online rivals.
Online fashion empire, Boohoo Group recently bought out Debenhams and had already acquired Karen Millen and Coast, turning them into online only stores in 2019, and Warehouse and Oasis in 2020. In a similar move, rival fashion empire, ASOS recently bought out the Arcadia Group where Topshop and Miss Selfridge were among their biggest brands.
Global giant, Amazon have been said to want to increase their use of robots or sorting, shipping and packing due to the pandemic and complaints from warehouse workers who say they are unable to socially distance from colleagues.
In hospitality, some fast food restaurants such as McDonalds have tested robots as cooks and servers. In food processing factories, automated machines can easily fill in the gaps left by employees unable to work due to the pandemic and are well-suited to repetitive tasks factory workers are expected to do.
In hotels, using computers for check-in, concierge and cleaning have also decreased the need for certain employees.
Who Will Be Affected By Job Loss?
We’ve always known that technology will rapidly change the world. The pandemic has brought automation to the forefront of everyone’s minds, including many small to mid-size businesses who were yet to embrace it.
The huge changes in retail and hospitality that we’ve seen in the past year is evidence that COVID-19 had changed the automation curve. Retail is one of the most common sectors of employment for women in the UK and this change looks to hit them the hardest.
School leavers and the next generation of workers will have to extensively research their career prospects to make sure they’re in a business that’s future proof and, for women in their mid-40s who have worked in these industries for 20 plus years, it might be time to re-skill. The end of the pandemic will bring a lot of joy for many people, but for many employees due to lose their jobs thanks to automation, it’s the beginning of a new uncertain time.
What Next For Automation?
With Covid accelerating the automation effect it is vital that organisations act responsibly and they act now. Long term future workforce planning is needed to identify the roles at risk. Huge investment is needed to re-skill, educate and redeploy those employees. We also need to consider the recruitment process and place equal value on transferable skills as that on education and experience.
The ‘Guide to responsible automation’ by Deloitte and Business In The Community (available to members) states, “We want digital transformation to be inclusive, which means that businesses need to take a strategic approach that equips their current and future workforce with the essential and technical skills they need to thrive as the world of work changes around them.”