Will I be Replaced by a Robot?

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If you’re a fan of comic books or science fiction, you probably know a thing or two about robots. At least, you think you do. Robots in those settings tend to be a bit different than the robots we’re seeing today.

While there are many differences, there are also some similarities.

Robots are being used to complete tasks that range from sweeping the floors of your home (thank you Roomba) to changing the blinds in a home to maximize or minimize sunlight. And in the professional world, robots are helping build sinks and make food for their human operators.

While that’s all fun and good, from a Human Resources perspective robots present a unique challenge: how do professionals deal with robotics and its impact on people and employment?

For a long time, robots were employed on industrial assembly lines. That’s no longer the case. Additionally, robots are showing up in offices, hospitals, and schools, warehouses, fulfillment centers, and small manufacturing centers. That sounds great for employers, but it worries employees.

The Truth is in the Data

In a new report from the Pew Research Company, Americans don’t like the look of the future when it comes to robotics. They are growing more concerned with the elimination of jobs as more robotic workers are ‘hired’ so to speak.

Pew asked respondents if they were more worried or optimistic about potential automation developments. Those included:

  • Future where robots and computers can do many human jobs
  • Development of algorithms that can evaluate and hire job candidates
  • Development of driverless vehicles
  • Development of robot caregivers for older adults

Looking at their data, respondents were more worried than enthusiastic about the first two situations, but that’s not the case for the third and fourth scenarios as seen in the Pew diagram seen below.

More Worry than optimism about potential developments in automation

Another report, this one by Price Waterhouse Cooper, says 38% of US jobs could be lost to automation by the early 2030s. The sectors most impacted: transportation and storage, manufacturing, and wholesale and resale. Health and social work sectors seem to be at a lower risk.

On the flipside, however, some say robotics increases job opportunities.

The International Data Corporation, or IDC, reports spending on robotics will reach $135.4 billion by 2019. That’s up a whopping $71 billion from just two years ago. $32 billion of that accounts for services in training, deployment, integration, and consulting. Translation: new jobs.

Robot Building

As mentioned earlier, one place of prominence for robotics is the manufacturing sector. Robots are used to perform jobs human simply can’t. Their also used to perform automated tasks.

Robotic Arm Welding Part

Take Elkay Manufacturing. The American-owned company has been in business for 90 years. They manufacture stainless steel sinks as well as faucets, foodservice products, water coolers, drinking fountains and bottle filling stations. As you can imagine, some of those products, at least in some part, are manufactured by way of robots.

And, for the company, robots will become more prevalent.

“Many of the things that we make are repetitive in nature, so not only is it difficult to retain people for a long time doing the repetitive task, we also then constantly battle repetitive work-related injury because of it,” Elkay Chief Human Resources Officer Larry Brand said. “So, any of those things that we can get into robotics and automation, we're driving as there as quickly as the investment makes sense."

Brand said the use of automation and robotics have helped stifle the hiring dilemma, but has created a challenge in getting hourly workers interesting in pursuing a technical career.

“I'll use an example at one of the plants where we just put an automated line. We are constantly looking for 30 people at that plant because as soon as we find those 30 over the course of four to five months, either based upon growth or skill set change or turnover, we find ourselves back at another 30,” Brand said.

The important thing to note here, however, is Elkay is not getting rid of workers.

"There'd have to be some type of really epic game changing type of technology at least in our company where we'd actually send good employees out the door,” Brand said. “We would repurpose them and figure out how to manage that through attrition."

Robotic Future

Robots are here to stay. As organizations move forward, they should be aware of the four trends driving the industry.

  1. User experience
  2. Affordability
  3. Size and shape
  4. Developer-friendly

In any case, the chapter on robotics and how they fit in to our professional lives and our personal lives is still being written. But there seems to be some real interest about the topic and, dare I say it, excitement. Who wouldn’t want their very own C3PO or R2-D2 following them around helping in any way possible? The question still remains, however, would those same individuals want that robot/droid doing things they could do themselves, especially when it comes to their livelihood and earning a paycheck?

Larry Brand is the Chief Human Resources Officer for Elkay Manufacturing.  Brand will also be a panelist at IQPC's CHRO Exchange in Phoenix, Arizona November 12-14,2017.