Automating Your Business

As COVID-19 Accelerates Automation Adoption, Here's How Businesses Are Helping Displaced Workers

By Andrej Kovacevic posted Thu December 24, 2020 04:28 AM

  

Back in March, when it first became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would require serious mitigation efforts to control, businesses didn't have much time to think about how those measures would reshape their businesses. They had little choice but to respond to local restrictions by cobbling together solutions to keep working.

For many of those businesses, the solution of choice turned out to be an accelerated automation deployment timeline. In a few short months, companies like IBM saw a huge surge in the adoption of their Watson platform, which wasn't unexpected.

In May, as shutdown orders started taking effect nationwide, Rob Thomas, Senior Vice President, IBM Cloud & Data Platform delivered remarks at IBM's virtual Think Digital Conference. At the time, he said, "I like to think the crisis we're dealing with, it's going to accelerate perhaps what was going to happen anyway — that's the opportunity in front of all of us," and that's just what happened in the ensuing months.

Now in December, what began as an emergency-driven surge in automation adoption is hardening into a new economic and employment reality. All of a sudden, laid-off workers are coming to find out that their jobs are now being performed by automated systems, and that they may have no work to return to when the pandemic ends. As economically-battered businesses keep looking for ways to increase efficiency, it's a safe bet that the trend will continue to accelerate.

All of this begs the question: do businesses bear some responsibility to help workers being displaced by their technology innovation or adoption? If so, how might they best go about doing it? As it turns out, some answers are beginning to form around those questions. Here's what's happening.

A Push to Retrain Displaced Workers

For many years, businesses have focused their in-house and contracted training programs on helping employees build skills that enhanced their value to the company itself. Now, there's a new and growing trend toward a different goal: outskilling. According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), outskilling is when a business sponsors a program specifically designed to help the workers it displaces build the job skills they need to find new work.

Outskilling programs are springing from a new awareness that businesses embracing automation face severe public backlash when they enact mass layoffs – especially amidst a pandemic. They're designing job placement programs to aid those workers and backing them up by sponsoring the training they need to land them, and connecting workers with institutions that offer low-cost or free tuition programs.

Calls to Change the University Model

Business leaders are also calling for the education industry to alter the way they prepare students for real-world employment. For example, there's growing pressure for colleges and universities to partner with businesses to create a pipeline of workers who have in-demand skills rather than focusing on credential acquisition. That would take some of the pressure off of businesses that now need to train new employees at their own expense and allow them to redirect those resources toward helping displaced workers.

This is a problem that predates the pandemic, but is now taking on increased significance as the economy sputters. However, experts in the education field insist that asking brick-and-mortar schools to reinvent themselves misses the point. According to Gabe Dalporto, Udacity's CEO, "A billion people will lose their jobs over the next 10 years due to AI, and if anything, COVID has accelerated that by about nine years," and "If you tried to reskill a billion people in the university system, you would break the university system." It's clear that businesses are still going to have to shoulder some of the reskilling burdens themselves.

Using AI to Help Reemploy Displaced Workers

In addition to business-led outskilling efforts and calls for the education industry to step up, some enterprising businesses are trying to use AI to solve the very problem it's creating. In one notable example, the food industry association FMI has partnered with Eightfold.ai to create a nationwide talent exchange to connect displaced workers with new employers. The system uses Eightfold's in-house developed AI system to automatically match worker skills with available positions within other companies.

For employers, this offers a plug-and-play option to help their displaced or soon-to-be-displaced workers land on their feet. It's particularly useful in cases where automation has made an employee redundant because the employer can alert the worker to add their information into the system well in advance of any layoffs. In many cases, affected employees can find a new role long before their current one gets phased out.

Necessity Breeds Innovation

Judging by the developments detailed above, businesses are beginning to develop strategies to deal with the worker displacement their automation is creating. The only question is how fast they'll be able to scale up their efforts to deal with the sudden acceleration of the pre-pandemic trends. Unfortunately, there's no reliable way to tell just yet.

With unemployment still at a higher-than-normal level, it's too soon to sort out which workers are unemployed for economic reasons and which have been permanently displaced by automation. For the time being, it looks like businesses are going to have to keep working to help their displaced employees as best they can until additional data makes the overall situation clearer. So far, the pressure is pushing them to innovate new outskilling and job placement programs, and that's a good thing.

As for how successful they are, only time will tell, but since automation-driven worker displacement was a problem businesses would have to confront in the near future anyway, their efforts now are both necessary and beneficial to both themselves and the workers they've long depended on to drive bottom-line results.


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