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What three studies tell us about automation in the workplace

One of the most popular topics we regularly tackle on this blog is automation, and the impact technology such as AI, Machine Learning and robotics is having, and will have, on the job market and the way we work.

In recent weeks, both in the US and UK, some interesting studies have been carried out on this hot topic by Pew Research Center and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), respectively. Meanwhile a survey entitled “Humans Wanted: Robots Need You” was conducted by recruitment company ManpowerGroup across 44 different countries, looking at the incorporation of bots into the working world and what this will mean for employees globally.

Dangerous and dirty

The Pew study examines the attitude of Americans in the light of increasing workplace automation, pulling together insightful charts and graphs from a range of public polls produced by the Center recently.

It concludes that while most Americans anticipate widespread disruption in the coming decades, few believe automation will affect their own job. Meanwhile, three quarters of Americans view job automation in a negative light with around half of respondents claiming automation has, to date, done more damage than good.

The general public is broadly supportive of automation replacing “dangerous and dirty” roles and is vehemently in favour (85 per cent) of seeing restrictions put in place to limit automation to only replacing jobs which are deemed too dangerous or unhealthy for humans.

Interestingly, when asked about whether the government or the individual should assume responsibility for helping workers who are displaced by the introduction of robots in the workplace, there was a split down the middle across party political lines.

1.5m jobs on the line

Meanwhile, across the pond, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) study states that 1.5m people in England are at high risk of losing their job. Having created a bot to analyse the jobs of 20m workers, ONS concluded that 7.4 per cent of these are at high risk of being replaced, with women assuming the highest risk by occupying 70 per cent of these roles.

There are some interesting correlations between these two studies. Both concur on the types of roles facing disruption — hospitality staff, retail assistants and sales workers top the high-risk list, while those working in medical professions and education are widely considered lower risk. Both studies also agreed that young people and part-time workers are particularly vulnerable to workforce automation.

Silver linings?

While these two studies paint an overwhelmingly bleak picture, the ManpowerGroup survey is, on the surface, far more optimistic in its outlook. The report’s overarching message is that humans and robots can coexist, and that automation needn’t be something to fear but something which will provide us with a wealth of new opportunities. It claims that 69 per cent of employers are planning to maintain the size of their workforce, while as many as 18 per cent actually want to hire more staff as a result of automation. To launch the study, Chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup, Jonas Prising, said: “More and more robots are being added to the workforce, but humans are too.”

But if you scratch beneath the surface, the situation isn’t actually as peachy as they appear to want you to believe. The study states that “just” nine per cent of employers believe automation will lead to job losses. On paper that may not seem like a particularly high percentage, but in reality it is a very high number indeed.

Spin it how you want, automation will give with one hand and take away with the other, it will optimise some jobs and replace others, it will strike fear into some and have others in a state of excitable rapture. The world of work is changing around us as we live and breathe, and these interesting studies, however depressing they may be, offer useful insights and a valuable yardstick on the evolving attitudes of employers and workers during very uncertain times.

Last summer we discussed how automation is likely to affect different roles and tasks within the publishing ecosystem over the course of four blog posts. To find out how your job might be affected by the rise of the robots check out our The State of Automation series here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

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