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Human Resources

Can the skills shortage square with automation fear?

“I’m 100% sure the skills gap is real and growing in this country [the US],” says Gerald Chertavian, Founder and CEO at Year Up on the keynote of the second day of Pegaworld 2016. “I’m [also] 100% sure the talent pool is sitting in the side-lines.”

Year Up’s objective is to help young adults lift themselves out of poverty and into professional jobs via targeted training and strategic partnership with businesses. Yet Chertavian also highlights a wider point, albeit inadvertently, about employment opportunities.

Employment is an extremely emotive issue. The way it is doled out doesn’t always seem fair or make a whole lot of sense. Yet there is always a shortage in some areas and a surplus in others. And at the moment technology is both eroding and creating jobs, while fundamentally changing the workforce skills needed.

Alan Marcus, Head of Technology Agenda at the World Economic Forum, reminds the audience at Pegaworld that opinions on the subject tend of technology and work tend to be “polarised”. There are two camps. Those who see limitless job opportunities from technology. And those who see a bleak and jobless future full of robot overlords.

Yet reality, as always, is a little more nuanced. Marcus takes the view that some jobs will be threatened while others will emerge. He highlights a WEF January report on the Future of Jobs [PDF] which shows that 35% of core skills will change between 2015 and 2020. And pinpoints a rising demand for very human skills like critical thinking and creativity.

This might help add some context to the increasing concerns about automation but it doesn’t answer the one concern I’ve always had with it. If you straw poll people in tech companies about whether automating certain tasks means job losses the stock answer is: “No, it frees employees to do more meaningful work”. Yet this is ever quantified. And never really makes sense.

Pegasystems provided a better answer at this week’s event. In April it acquired robotic automation software provider OpenSpan and now (predominantly) uses it to help clients streamline their contact centres. At first glance this sounds a little suspect but in a demo it showed how this kind of software could, in fact, be used to end the kind of mind numbing boredom and crippling frustration that makes a person truly loathe their job.

The example used was where a contact centre has numerous legacy systems which result in agents having a high volume of applications open at any one time. This means that for something as simple as updating an address, an agent may have to manually input the details into perhaps five different programs. Now the automated system can do in 10 seconds what would take a human three-minutes. This doesn’t spell job loss for agents – there are still plenty of calls to take – it just makes their day less horrible.

As the BBC Magazine pointed out in an in-depth feature published in 2011, people don’t set out to work in call centres and so the idea of boosting productivity and having more time to taking calls may sound like an oxymoron when it comes to meaningful work. But what this means in practice is, less frustrating work with a boost in productivity for the employer.

There are no simple answers when it comes to technology’s role in the future of employment. Like the people who used to work the telephone exchange some roles will entirely disappear over the next decade but others naturally need a more human touch. It is interesting though, that the need to update numerous old systems is a problem from technology that can be corrected by technology. And while things are not always going to be as straight forward as this, it does very clearly demonstrate the ever changing ebb and flow of the workplace.

 

Also read:

Office 2021: Why robots won’t end drudgery or steal our jobs

Humanity will invent new jobs long before AI “steals” them all

UK: Is a ‘coding retreat’ better than a computing degree?

Afiniti: An AI way to make call centre interaction less hideous?

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