Monday, September 24, 2018
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What if … the robots start getting your jobs?

These are extraordinary times, and business is not usual.  Extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions. Futurists say that the environment has become volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA).  Not just for businessmen, but for people from all walks of life.

Experts have warned that roughly half of today’s jobs could be performed better using artificial intelligence and robotics, using present-day technology.  If you understand how fast technology gets upgraded, there’s reason to worry.  If the futurists are wrong, perhaps there’s no need to worry.  But, what if they’re right?

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The future is here

The New York Times featured in April 2018 a delivery robot that rolled through a neighborhood in Philomath, Oregon, USA. “The robot’s inventor is a native of the town and hopes that with more people shopping online, such robots will take off, reducing traffic and pollution.” What if the inventor is right?

Three decades ago, Filipino businessmen used to ask each other, “What should we do when the union comes knocking at your door?  Today, they must be asking, “What should we do when the robots start knocking at your door?”  For the workers, the questions could be more worrisome, “What should we do when the robots start getting our jobs?” What if the robots are now at your door?

Considering the dire consequences, these questions would demand creative solutions from affected sectors.  Due to massive impact of possibly unparalleled proportions, the situation also demands political attention and concerted action.

Creative solutions

In Germany, when economic activity slows down and depression sets in, the government implements a  job-sharing scheme.  Instead of laying off one-fourth of the employees in enterprises, the companies cut work hours for employees across-the-board by 25%.  This way the employees continue to have jobs, even with reduced work hours and incomes.

Economist Mark Paul of the Roosevelt Institute, wrote a paper, “Don’t Fear the Robots.”  He believes that there should be public funding for higher education and more focused skills training to help workers upgrade their skills so that they could adapt to the changing needs for workers in a more technology-driven economy.  What if public funding is not feasible or in the contemplation of public officials?

The McKinsey Global Institute is best known for perhaps the most extensive analysis on possible job losses on account of the invasion of artificial intelligence in the workplace.  It supports the thinking that governments must subsidize education and training, so that workers will qualify for jobs that would not be taken over by robots. What if there are no government subsidies for education and training?

When AI, robotics and technological disruption rear their ugly heads in a fast-transitioning workplace, leaders and workers must ask the right questions. “Is there no more demand for human workers? Or is there simply a change in the skills required to perform work faster, better, and at lesser cost?”

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What if purposive skills retraining is needed, and no public funding or government subsidies come, and the robots start knocking at your door? To me, nothing beats individual initiative to adapt to the changing environment in ensuring job security.  Never trust to other individuals or institutions the planning of your career.  Like Nike says, “Just do it.”

Transitioning economies

Most of the world economies transitioned from agricultural, to industrial, and to information economy over the past decades, if not century.  The Philippines’ transition happened too quickly from agricultural to information economy, almost rushing through the industrial stage that has not even fully developed.

When the transition happens, it is not wise to stymie the transition or evolution simply because the workers and the rest of the economy are not ready.  Mark Paul said, “We want a growing, robust economy.  We just need proper policies in place to ensure that workers don’t bear the burden of that transition.”

McKinsey’s Susan Lund says, “It is increasingly crucial that people continually upgrade their skills to keep up with changing technology, whether through community colleges, traditional universities, or narrowly targeted online training.”

She adds, “Lifelong learning accounts would be interesting, and they could be federally funded or they could be funded by employers, but what you want is for people to be able to avail themselves of a two-month leave to take courses so that they can keep up with change.”

In addition, McKinsey suggests more creative approaches.  As attrition, transition, and career mobility dramatically intensify over the years, the benefits that accrue to workers because of their jobs (such as health insurance, medical, and retirement funds) should be made more “portable.”  This will enable people who move from one company to another, or change jobs frequently, or become independent contractors, to have more stability in their income and benefits.

What if none of these creative approaches come your way, and the robots start getting your job, would you just roll over and die?  In most movies I have seen where robots are the enemies, humans always ended up winning the war. Winners never give up, train and work hard, and choose their battles.  What if the robots come?  Then do best what robots cannot do!

Like Tiffany Schmidt said, “You’ve got to pick your battles, but then fight to the death for the ones that matter.”

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