Are Supply Chain Personnel Safe from Automation? – Paul Trudgian

A question that has been skirting around the industry over recent years is: ‘are supply chain professionals really safe from automation?’ Is the constant flow of news that supply chain jobs are safe from robots really true, or is it an echo chamber of what we want to believe? Has anyone been strong enough to really look into this, without an agenda of fear?

The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2018 really does take up the mantle on this. It gives data-driven insight to the changes that automation is bringing to our industry, on an employment level. The report is based on a survey of 313 companies. These companies themselves represent a workforce of 15 million workers across 19 different countries.

The Process of Automation in the Supply Chain

Before considering the impact on the workforce, and its very nature, it is important to understand the changes that automation is actually bringing. This isn’t about what ‘might’ happen, or even what may become possible. Instead, it looks at what is actually happening in terms of the way supply chains are adopting automation.

The technologies which are predominantly being adopted over the next few years are:

  • Big data analytics (85%)
  • App and web-enabled markets (75%)
  • IoT machine learning and cloud computing (73%)

Whilst the sci-fi idea of robots is certainly not to be discounted, they are only on the immediate agenda for 23% of those surveyed. They aren’t mainstream, yet.

The Balance of Good v. Bad in Employment Terms

The argument until this point, by the more balanced areas of the media, is that what is lost (in terms of employment) in one area, will be gained in another. The WEC report further cements this belief. The report states it, thus:

“A particular focus of this new edition of the report is on arriving at a better understanding of the potential of new technologies, including automation and algorithms, to create new high-quality jobs and vastly improve the job quality and productivity of the existing work of human employees. As has been the case throughout economic history, such augmentation of existing jobs through technology is expected to create wholly new tasks—from app development to piloting drones to remotely monitoring patient health to certified care workers—opening up opportunities for an entirely new range of livelihoods for workers. At the same time, however, it is also clear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s wave of technological advancement is set to reduce the number of workers required for certain work tasks. Our analysis finds that increased demand for new roles will offset the decreasing demand for others.”

The report goes on to apply some actual figures to this balanced argument of gains versus losses in terms of employment.

It explains that approximately 50% of businesses expect that automation will cause a reduction in some parts of their workforce over the next four years. However, when we look further at this data, this is for job profiles based on the jobs done now, today.

38% of companies also expected to “extend their workforce to new productivity-enhancing roles”. Additionally, over 25% expect automation itself to drive the opening of new roles within their business.  The employment landscape in supply chains also looks set to expand their use of contractors for the highly specialised tasks.

However, as the report clearly states – nothing is guaranteed. A great deal of this will only become clear as time progresses.

Can Automation Create New Roles?

There’s definitely no doubt that in itself, automation will create new roles, particularly process automation specialists. However, perhaps the real issue is whether the workforce areas which stand to lose jobs through automation are the same individuals who can be reskilled into these roles. There may be a break-even point overall, but that doesn’t mean individual roles (and individuals) won’t become redundant.

Robotics, automation tech, AI, software etc., all need servicing specialists, programmers, interpreters and monitoring. Taking the repetitive manual tasks away from humans makes sense because machines can do it better and more efficiently. However, it isn’t just a case of freeing up those individuals from the routine repetitive tasks to enable them to become decision-makers based on newly available big data. They are completely different skill sets.

These manual and physical tasks are done by machines in about 31% of cases today. By 2022, this will have jumped to 48%. At that rate, those jobs will see a huge impact.

The report urges that strategy is therefore applied to how automation in these roles is adopted, with particular thought to how to reassign the workers affected by the changes. There does need to be an industry-wide investment into re-skilling in order to prevent job losses, but also in order to prevent a skills shortage which is looming on the horizon.

It’s vital to realise that these changes aren’t simply happening on the manufacturing factory floor, or in the warehouse. Robotics, IoT, sensors, cloud-computing, and smart tech are also changing the nature of administrative roles. Positions such as accounting are also on the cusp of change.

The important thing is therefore how we intelligently prepare to thrive through an intense transition period. Our automation progress will be hampered if we don’t have the skills to utilise it to its maximum capability. In itself, it is forcing us to raise the bar on human expectation.

Those individuals who are there from now stand to hugely benefit from the changes automation brings, if they rise to the challenge. If they become the automation experts who learn alongside the growth of technology then they will have the skills which will be in short supply. They need to modernise themselves and their skills to have a place in the new structure.

Automation and Jobs in the Future

It’s essential to face this challenge head-on. A skills shortage in the future will hamper those who haven’t prepared. Investing in and re-skilling your staff now, in line with automation, will benefit you in the long run.

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