With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, bosses of many have randomly called them one fine morning to tell them not to come to work the next day. Many a time, people have lost their jobs because to protect their health, their job and only source of livelihood has been automated. The technology has taken over their occupation, leaving them unemployed. For instance, in Northern California the positions of about 185 toll collectors were replaced by automation at bridges.
For decades, machines have made workers redundant. Weavers were replaced by spinning jennies, elevator operators were replaced by keys, and travel agents were driven out of operation by the Internet. According to one report, between 1990 and 2007, about 400,000 workers in American factories were lost due to automation. However, as businesses seek to prevent COVID-19 infections in the workplace and keep operating costs down, the trend to substitute humans with machines is accelerating. At the height of the pandemic, the United States lost about 40 million jobs, and although some have now returned, others will never do so. According to one association of analysts, 42 percent of the positions lost are gone forever.
As businesses shift from survival mode to finding out how to survive as the pandemic drags on, the substitution of humans with machines will pick up steam in the coming months. According to a recent paper published by economists at MIT and Boston University, robots could replace up to 2 million more jobs in manufacturing by 2025. According to Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Balliol College, University of Oxford, and author of A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Can React, this pandemic has provided a very strong desire to automate human beings’ work.
Machines do not get sick, do not need to separate themselves to shield their peers, and do not need to take off.
This latest surge of automation, like so much else in the pandemic, would be more difficult for people of color, such as Collins, and low-wage jobs. According to McKinsey, many Black and Latino Americans work as cashiers, food-service workers, and customer-service agents, which are among the 15 occupations most at risk from automation. Well before the pandemic, a major consultancy firm predicted that by 2030, as many as 132,000 black jobs in the United States will be displaced due to technology.
Increased used of Robots due to the pandemic
As a result of the coronavirus, robots were quickly deployed. They were washing floors at airports and taking people’s temperatures all of a sudden. Hospitals and colleges used Sally, a salad-making robot developed by the tech firm Chowbotics, to replace dining-hall employees; malls and stadiums purchased Knightscope security-guard robots to police vacant real estate, and businesses that produce in-demand products such as hospital beds and cotton swabs switched to industrial robot provider Yaskawa America to help boost productivity. Companies closed call centers that employed human customer-service agents in favor of chatbots developed by technology company LivePerson or AI network Watson Assistant. “I believe this is a new normal–the pandemic hastened what might have happened anyway,” says Rob Thomas, senior vice president of cloud and data platform at IBM, which uses Watson. Between March and June, about 100 new clients began using the program.
Problem with rising popularity of automation and artificial intelligence
Theoretically, automation and artificial intelligence are supposed to free people from risky or tedious jobs, make businesses more profitable, and raise employee salaries. And automation was used in the past with time to move workers into new positions. Many that have lost employment will be retrained, maybe using discount pay and unemployment insurance to pursue work in a different sector. The transformation this time abruptly took place as employers concerned about COVID-19 and hurried to replace employees with machinery or software. No time for retraining. Companies were concerned that their result would lead them to free jobs and these workers could discover opportunities to master new skills on their own.
In the past, the United States reacted by engaging in education to technological change. When automation transformed agricultural employment radically in the late 1800s and the 1900s, access to public schools was increased. The GI bill, which sent 7.8 million veterans to school from 1944 to 1956, extended access to schools during World War II. But since then, American investment in education has slowed, burdening workers themselves with paying for it. And the notion of school in the United States is all about young employees’ college rather than retraining.
Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brooking’s Institution, says the actual automation crisis is not so much a robot catastrophe. It is business as usual for people to retrain and can’t get it in an open, reliable, data-driven, well-educated manner. Since they lack guidance counselors, classrooms, and other features found in offline schools, online learning services may have comparatively affordable upskilling opportunities. However, employers could play a larger role in providing such support systems in the future. Dalporto, who refers to COVID-19’s surge of automation as “our commercial Pearl Harbor,” believes that the government should provide a $2,500 tax refund to businesses who provide retraining. He also advises that $1,500 in retraining credits be included in employer severance payments.
Some businesses are moving to Guild Education, which collaborates with businesses to subsidize upskilling. Guild introduced a scheme in May that allows employers to pay a premium to have Guild help laid-off employees in seeking new employment. According to Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild, employers see this as a way to build trust among these former workers. She claims that the most thoughtful consumer companies mean, employee for now can be converted into a customer forever.
Staff and employers do not see any value in preparing for positions that may not be open for months or even years when the workforce is 30 million jobs short of what it was before the pandemic. And not every employee is involved in learning about data analytics, cloud computing, or AI.
Therefore, it is of supreme importance for employers to be a little more sensitive towards their employees and not blindly follow the most profitable pathways. On the same note, the youth and job-seekers should constantly focus on keeping themselves up-to-date by regularly working and improving their existing skill sets, learning new ones and match up with the dynamic needs of the business environment.