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Automation Revolution Will Spur Retraining to Fill New Jobs

Two men standing in front of a machine in a factory.

​Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will displace millions of workers in coming years but simultaneously create many new jobs that displaced workers will need to be trained to fill. It will be a priority for employers to expand workforce retraining so that employers and workers can manage the enormous disruptions that the automation revolution will bring, according to a June report on AI and robotics from Littler's Workplace Policy Institute.

The MIT Technology Review defines AI as "an evolving constellation of technologies that enable computers to simulate elements of human thinking, including learning and reasoning."

By 2030, 400 million to 800 million workers worldwide, including 73 million in the United States, will be forced out of their current jobs by AI and robotics, according to McKinsey Global Institute. The biggest challenge for HR in the next decade will be to provide training for existing workers so they can remain employable and to help businesses as they undergo transition, said Garry Mathiason, an attorney with Littler and a co-author of the report.

Job Creation, Job Replacement

As many jobs disappear, many new ones will surface. Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler and a co-author of the report, noted that he has a 7-year-old granddaughter. When he asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, she might answer she doesn't know because the job hasn't yet been created, he observed.

Existing jobs that are likely to see increases in demand include computer scientist, engineer and IT administrator. Technology will address the rising demand for health care and other services for the aging population by supporting job growth for doctors, nurses, health technicians, home health aides, personal care aides and nursing assistants, the report predicts.



Jobs that have predictable or repetitive essential tasks are likely to become automated, the report notes. McKinsey Global Institute says that "a wide range of jobs carried out in predictable settings, such as assembly line workers, dishwashers, food preparation workers, drivers, and agricultural and other equipment operators," will see substantial declines in employment. Food preparation jobs alone are projected to decrease by more than 35 percent by 2030 in the United States.


Displaced workers could be retrained to fill the increasing demand for employees who can operate, monitor, maintain and repair automated systems, the report states. In the past two years, two global e-commerce companies have automated many warehouse workers' tasks. Instead of laying them off, both companies retrained them to operate and repair the robots that forced them out of their former roles, the report says.

Businesses have historically neglected employer-sponsored vocational programs and formal workplace training, the report observes. Employers generally hire workers with the expectation that they will be able to be productive with little or no company-provided training aside from informal, on-the-job shadowing during an employee's early days or weeks of work.

"Such an approach will not be tenable in the face of accelerating technological change, which will continuously create demand for new skills and diminish demand for others on ever-shorter timescales," the report states. Employers won't be able to rely on recruitment to fill anticipated needs because there won't be an adequate supply of outside workers with the necessary skills, it predicts.

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Employers will have to take a more proactive approach, the report suggests. "While some employers may be able to provide the necessary training in-house, most will find it beneficial to partner with technical schools, online education platforms and community colleges, many of which engage in vocational education and have experience in developing the necessary curricula and coursework," it notes.

Firm-sponsored apprenticeship programs that mix vocational education and on-the-job training, as is common with companies in Germany, are another option. A Spartanburg, S.C., factory operated by a German-owned company is 98 percent automated, but the company has invested substantial resources in an apprenticeship program for mechanics to monitor, maintain and repair the 2,000 robots that perform the production work at the 1.2 million-square-foot facility, the report says. The apprenticeship program has been so successful that the company announced this year that it was doubling the size of the program.



Online education programs are another possibility. There are an unprecedented number of online programs in data science, computer programming and other related fields, the report notes. Many of these programs do not require enrollees to have more than a high school education, which is critically important given that the rise in automation is expected to hit workers without college degrees particularly hard. Many of the programs also are self-paced, permitting learners to progress on their own schedule, which may be necessary for companies whose employees are working while enrolled.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) believes that both government and employers play a role in providing training to employees to help them become more productive and better qualified for high- and middle-skill jobs. SHRM believes that such training should be encouraged as a sound investment through incentives, rather than through mandates, notes SHRM's 2018 Guide to Public Policy Issues.

HR's Role

Lotito said that HR should ensure it has a seat at the executive table as the automation revolution progresses. They should not only be raising concerns about retraining but also about recruitment, retention and necessary compensation strategies.

There also will be new possibilities for employing people with disabilities through self-driving cars and other robotics, such as exoskeletons: powered, wearable robots that can enhance the user's strength and endurance, according to the Journal of Responsible Innovation. In addition, exoskeletons can help make the workplace safer, Mathiason noted. Already, shipyard workers in South Korea are using exoskeletons, the report observes.

"If there's ever been a cry for HR leadership, this is it," Lotito said. The automation revolution is "at its core fundamentally an HR issue," he concluded.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.