Concerned that automation is replacing jobs, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim has been promoting a statewide tax on “robots” that automate tasks formerly performed by…well, humans.
Her proposal was met, not surprisingly, with a host of responses ranging from enthusiastic agreement to tepid support to downright ridicule.
Regardless of Supervisor Kim’s position on the robot tax – and unrelated to the “merits” of policies that would discourage innovation and efficiency in business – a recent survey suggests California millennials are concerned that robots will take their future jobs.
A new poll from Pepperdine Graziadio Business School found that 43 percent of California employed millennials believe that 20 years from now, automation will take over their job doing the work they do today.
Young Californians have good reason for concern. Automation is not limited to manufacturing and factory assembly, the industries in which it was first introduced. Many new restaurants, for example, now feature tableside iPad ordering. Hotels feature mobile check-in and check-out. Robots are used for security, in pharmacies, retail and call centers.
It’s a small wonder that California millennials view automation with skepticism. But their wariness also presents a challenge to business owners. As Los Angeles repositions its economy for the future, employers must evolve their workplace – to one that is dependent on a robust, enthusiastic workforce – but also one that embraces automation as a permanent sidekick.
Here are three ways Los Angeles business owners can balance workers and automation:
• Encourage workers to make peace with automation. The Pepperdine Graziadio Business poll suggests that rather than viewing automation as a “Millennial versus Machine” job standoff, millennials might simply fear for their prospects in an automated future. Many California millennials appear eager to embrace automation for future careers and prosperity. Forty-four percent of California employed millennials say they currently work in or have considered a job that manages automation.
Employers can help by positioning automation more as what the Harvard Business Review refers to as augmentation – “starting with what humans do today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a greater use of machines.”
• Balance automation with the “human touch.” A recent article in TechCrunch urged worried robot-phobes to consider the automatic teller machine. Yes, the author noted, it likely replaced some human tellers in the 70s and 80s, but most banks still have tellers: “When you walk into the bank, there are still people working there because, when it comes to our money, sometimes we still want to talk to a trained professional.” For the same reason, most of us who must make customer service phone calls repeat “Agent!” until we reach a real live human.
That’s because nothing can ever really replace human beings – even robots. Companies that neglect to include the human touch at regular intervals in their customer engagement strategy will pay the price.
• Support advanced education and skills training for employees. Even in a world of automation, people are generally the ones running operations, addressing complex tasks, and solving multifaceted problems. Our poll showed that millennials recognize that they need advanced skills to achieve career mobility in an increasingly technological world. Millennials believe it is important to update their skills as their career progresses – whether through a higher degree, formal training, being self-taught, apprenticeships, or other career-building pathways.
Employers can help their employees – and their own businesses – by providing in-service training for automated workplaces, sponsoring employees’ efforts to gain specialized certifications, or providing tuition assistance programs for higher education. Those benefits will pay off in terms of employee loyalty, retention and implementation of new skills in the workplace.
David M. Smith, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Economics at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School.
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