A Robot Could Be Your Next Co-Worker

Many jobs have tasks that could be automated now

By Roy Maurer Feb 7, 2017

"The robots are coming" has become a familiar refrain, representing the fear that technology will take over jobs faster than people can acquire new skills. But don't panic yet: A new McKinsey Global Institute study concluded that less than 5 percent of all occupations can be fully replaced by current or soon-to-be-available technology.

The institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, analyzed more than 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations and found that 60 percent of all occupations have about 30 percent of tasks that could be automated now or soon. Half of today's work tasks could be automated by 2055, the study concluded, but it's more likely that the near-term impact will change the nature of work rather than lead to mass unemployment.

"Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are ushering in a new age of automation, as machines match or outperform human performance in a range of work activities, including ones requiring cognitive capabilities," the study report authors wrote.

"Many workers will continue to work alongside machines as various activities are automated. These shifts will change the organization of companies, the structure and bases of competition of industries, and business models."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

Jobs That Are Ripe for Automation

The pace and extent of automation is expected to vary across different activities, occupations, and wage and skill levels. The activities determined to be the most susceptible to automation will tend to be "physical activities in highly structured and predictable environments," as well as the collection and processing of data. In the United States, for example, these activities make up 51 percent of work activities and are most prevalent in manufacturing, food service and retail trade.

The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers reported that low-wage jobs are especially at risk, withan estimated 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour in danger of being automated.

Manufacturing jobs such as welders, cutters and solderers have an automation potential above 90 percent, according to McKinsey's analysis, whereas the institute pegged the susceptibility for customer service representatives at less than 30 percent.

While occupations with higher wages and skill requirements on average have lower automation potential, parts of those jobs could be automated, according to the report.

"Essentially all occupations, whether high skill or low skill, have some technical automation potential, including CEOs. We estimate about 25 percent of their work could potentially be automated, primarily such tasks as analyzing reports and data to inform decisions, reviewing status reports and preparing staff assignments," the report said.

Automation of work will impact employers and workers worldwide, but McKinsey noted that four countries in particular—China, India, Japan and the United States—account for almost two-thirds of the number of workers associated with job tasks that are "technically automatable" now or very soon.

The institute listed five key factors that will influence the pace and extent of the disruption, including:

  • Technical feasibility.
  • Cost.
  • Labor market dynamics, including the supply, demand and costs of human labor as an alternative to automation.
  • Economic benefits, which could include higher productivity and increased quality, as well as labor-cost savings.
  • Regulatory and social acceptance.

"Taking all of these factors into account, we estimate it will take decades for automation's effect on current work activities to play out fully," the report said. That's a small comfort for workers who lose their jobs or employers being challenged by competitors using automation.

More Education, New Skills Needed

Automation is the latest occupational disruption: Farm employment in the U.S. fell from 40 percent in 1900 to 2 percent in 2000, while manufacturing employment fell from approximately 25 percent in 1950 to less than 10 percent in 2010, report authors noted.

In those cases, educational requirements changed to meet the societal shifts, said Kevin Wheeler, the founder and president of the Future of Talent Institute, a San Francisco-area think tank forecasting employment trends. "There was a huge ramp up in public education from 1890 to 1940, and more and more young people completed at least eight years of school," he said. "By 1940, 50 percent of young adults had earned a high school diploma and previously unskilled farm workers could be employed in factories where reading and math skills were required."

The McKinsey report authors added that new activities and jobs were created that offset the jobs that disappeared, although it was not possible to predict what those new activities and jobs would be while these shifts were occurring.

Wheeler added that policymakers, employers and workers can help prepare for the disruptive impact on employment by rethinking education and training for the skills that will be necessary in the automation age.

"Employers need to provide more training and development for current employees and even for prospective employees through online courses, MOOCs [massive open online courses], and other interactive, virtual tools," he said. "Every employer should be encouraging workers to gain skills and … should be willing to pay for employees to get those skills through tuition reimbursement or partnerships with local schools that provide training at no cost through negotiated contracts."

In addition, traditional educational institutions and practices need to adapt faster, he said. "We need more institutions that allow people to freely take courses whenever convenient and then combine them for a degree. Some companies are creating and delivering a variety of MOOCs that deliver learning via video and the Internet, and there are a growing number of on-demand learning services like Lynda. Learning will need to be an all-the-time activity and will continue throughout one's life."

Finally, Wheeler said that federal, state and local governments will need to provide funds for retraining and allow some form of subsidy for those who are motivated to learn. "Rather than tax dollars on reindustrialization, we should be spending it on re-education and training."

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