WASHINGTON, DC (December 4, 2018) – Littler, the world’s largest labor and employment firm representing management, recently convened a roundtable of distinguished leaders from government, industry and academia to discuss the rapid revolution of the workplace and workforce due to AI, robotics, and other automation technologies. The roundtable was sponsored by Littler’s Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation practice group, co-chaired by Shareholders Garry Mathiason and Natalie Pierce, and Workplace Policy Institute (WPI).
The primary topic of discussion during the morning session of the roundtable was the impact that automation will have on the workforce, and what companies, industry groups, and workers must do to prepare for the disruptive impact of AI, robotics, and other emerging technologies. These issues go to the very core of the mission of the Emma Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed by Littler with the goal of saving American capitalism in the 21st century by preparing America’s employers and workers for the coming Technology-Induced Displacement of Employees, or TIDE.
“The coming wave of robotic and AI-driven automation is converging with other major economic trends to affect how the American workforce and the distribution of work will change in the coming years,” said Michael Lotito, co-chair of WPI and co-founder of the Emma Coalition. “It’s our mission to ensure companies take the necessary steps to remain competitive in the 21st century economy and, in furtherance of that mission, we regularly gather key influencers to discuss and consider real, implementable solutions.”
Following is a summary of the morning roundtable participants’ perspectives and points of consensus. Another report will be developed that provides a high-level synopsis of the entire program.
Jobs Created, Jobs Displaced and Jobs Transformed
During the rapid rise of sophisticated AI over the past decade, considerable public attention has focused on the potential threat to workers in jobs that are vulnerable to automation. The unspoken assumption underlying these concerns about automation is that the workers at companies that automate are more vulnerable to economic dislocation than workers at companies that do not automate. But in reality, the outlook for workers at companies that do not automate may be far bleaker.
The increases in efficiency and productivity from the incorporation of AI and robotics into companies’ operations mean that companies that refrain from adopting automation technologies may find themselves at a decisive competitive disadvantage. Future successful companies will identify the tasks that they will need performed in the near future, identify which tasks are best-suited for humans, and use the profits and savings generated by automation to upskill and leverage the capabilities of their workers.
In addition to the jobs that automation will create and those it will displace, AI and other emerging technologies will radically transform entire industries and economic sectors in the coming decades. The models established by companies operating in the aviation, automotive, manufacturing and healthcare industries will be a blueprint for companies that seek to achieve the correct mix of appropriately skilled human workers and smart automation that will be the formula for economic success in the global economy.
Training the Workforce of the Future
The key challenge that employers and workers will face to minimize the disruptive impact of automation will be providing workers - especially those displaced by automation - with access to training programs that provide them with the skills needed for the jobs of the future.
Three key steps can be taken by organizations looking to remain competitive in the global labor market: 1) building the workforce of the future will require a greater emphasis on lifelong learning; 2) flexible training programs should be designed that can quickly adjust and adapt to the frequent changes in labor market demands that will accompany automation; and 3) training programs should place greater emphasis on providing workers with general competencies and skills that will be transferable to jobs in multiple fields.
The Road Ahead
In August 2018, the Department of Commerce announced the creation of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, whose mission is to address the need to provide workers with the skills necessary to thrive in today’s technology-driven economy. It remains to be seen how the Advisory Board goes about fulfilling its mission, or how much federal funding will be made available to implement any recommendations it makes. In the meantime, the rapid pace of technological change means that real, implementable solutions need to be formulated sooner rather than later.
But technological change is far from the only disruptive force affecting the America’s workers and workplaces. The increasing prominence of the contingent workforce may require regulators and legislators to reexamine the longstanding model, predicated on employer/employee relationships, for providing workers with workplace protections and benefits. The contingent workforce also raises new questions about how workers can have an effective voice regarding workplace conditions and policies and what role organized labor could play in providing that voice.
1 We use the term “worker” rather than “employee” to emphasize the important role that freelancers and other contingent workers will play in the economy of the future. Companies’ efforts to build a workforce with the necessary skill set can and must extend to contingent workers, who some studies suggest are more likely than traditional employees to participate in programs that provide them with new skills.
Littler is the largest global employment and labor law practice, with more than 1,500 attorneys in over 80 offices worldwide. Littler represents management in all aspects of employment and labor law and serves as a single-source solution provider to the global employer community. Consistently recognized in the industry as a leading and innovative law practice, Littler has been litigating, mediating and negotiating some of the most influential employment law cases and labor contracts on record for over 75 years. Littler Global is the collective trade name for an international legal practice, the practicing member entities of which are separate and distinct professional firms.