How Robots Will Change the Role of Human Workers

A big part of preparing for robotics’ continued implementation in the economy will be learning how the role of human work will change.

Will stories like this be written by robots a few years from now?

From self-driving cars to medical diagnoses, we’re witnessing a robotic takeover of a variety of jobs and tasks. For many, the prospect of being replaced by a robot or artificial intelligence program is still only a fear on the horizon. For others, it’s already happened.

Savvy organizations recognize these trends and are doing two things. First, they’re embracing technology. Second, they’re training and developing employees to take on new tasks and step into new jobs.

The U.S. has lost more than 7 million factory jobs due to automation since manufacturing employment peaked in 1979, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet factory output has more than doubled since then. While the increased efficiency and output is good news for manufacturers, automation advances have been pretty much a disaster for workers who don’t have specialized skills. The trend is only going to accelerate in the years ahead.

Given existing technology, 59 percent of current U.S. manufacturing tasks could be automated in the next several years, estimates McKinsey & Co. That translates to a potential loss of 7.25 million jobs in the U.S.

For manufacturing workers, the response is obvious: retrain, expand skill sets and learn how to use new technology to enhance their organization’s performance. In short, make friends with robots.

For manufacturers, the adoption of new technologies is necessary to improve performance and remain competitive. However, overreliance on technology to drive value can lead organizations toward making a fatal mistake: limiting their single most important source of innovation and future value creation — their employees.

In a finding from a Korn Ferry global survey of 800 top business executives, 44 percent of respondents said that the growth of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence will make people “largely irrelevant” in the future of work. Moreover, in the same survey, 67 percent of CEOs said they believe technology will create more value in the future than human capital.

Recent economic research, however, indicates that technology is only one aspect for achieving growth and value. An economic analysis commissioned by Korn Ferry found that human capital holds the greatest value for organizations now and in the future. Globally, human capital represents a potential value of $1.2 quadrillion, or 2.33 times that of physical capital. Moreover, for every dollar invested in human capital, $11.39 is added to GDP.

Clearly, some companies understand the importance of human capital and they are training employees on how to work with robots and other forms of technology to enhance business outcomes and remain relevant.

General Motors, a pioneer in the use of robots on assembly lines, has introduced collaborative robots at its Orion, Michigan, plant. Unlike the earlier generation of robots that operated separately from workers, the new robots work side by side with people and typically take on backbreaking tasks such as stacking tires. GM workers receive training on how to interact with the robots on the factory floor, optimizing the technology by human input.

In addition, GM is testing a robotic glove that mimics the dexterity of the human hand. The glove features amplified gripping power, which is designed to reduce fatigue for workers engaged in repetitive motions.

A logistics transportation and distribution company, and client of ours, was opening a new facility to help fuel their growth in a new geography. They chose to open a highly automated facility. This new operation required a fraction of the manpower of their legacy plants. The existing workforce was nervous about the potential change in approach and thought something similar would take place at other locations (which it eventually did). The company decided to offer training to its staff on how to work in a highly automated environment. Reskilling staff raised engagement to a new level. People who were willing to learn and accepted the change became the next level of leaders.

Transitions like these are never seamless, but if history is any guide, the introduction of new technologies will create more jobs than destroy.

For example, in the 1900s, the mechanization of agriculture substantially reduced demand for farm workers. At the same time, the growth of manufacturing created millions of new jobs for the displaced farm workers.

A more recent example comes from the banking world. The introduction of the ATM meant that fewer bank tellers were needed at each branch. However, the salary savings encouraged banks to open more branches and ultimately hire more tellers. From 1970 to 2014, the number of bank tellers in the U.S. increased from approximately 300,000 to around 520,000, according to BLS figures.  Moreover, the quality of jobs improved. Banks have hired new associates to focus on a broader level of sales and customer service activities while the ATMs perform the routine tasks of customer transactions.

As robotics, automation and artificial intelligence continue to take over tasks formerly carried out by people, new opportunities and new jobs will be created. Companies’ supply chains are going through large scale transformation after disrupters like Amazon changed customers’ attitudes toward ease of use and delivery speeds. Browsing a site on a smart device, making a purchase with a thumb print and having the product delivered the next day has completely changed the game.

Organizations that are going to survive need to quickly adapt to this reality and place customer expectations, experiences and satisfaction at the top of their minds, and build organizations to support that. For front-line workers, learning new skills and becoming more tech savvy can mean the difference between having a job or not.

Scott Adams is practice leader, supply chain and operations for Korn Ferry Futurestep. To comment, email