Within the conversation about the unsettling implications of software looms a grave question: will technology shoulder each of us out of work too? The rapid advancement of connected technologies has already started to instruct systems-level changes, introducing capabilities that will determine the close horizon of what humans do for work. While some companies have been responsible for allowing us to take up our rightful place online, an overlapping set have focused on how else our physical presence might be displaced by intelligent robots. Though the precise scale and timing of these developments remains uncertain, the road markings suggest that the future of work is very much present.
Even the staunchest Luddites can't avoid the fruits of some recent technological advances, however bitter. Entire legacy processes have already changed as a result of this shift, now affordable to the smallest innovators and the largest bureaucracies. This march has already passed a fine-toothed comb through paper-based communication and is making short work of payments in developed nations, providing enough insight to allow emerging economies to leapfrog redundant ways of exchanging information and currency.
Things look a little different in the tactile world of work, where vast amounts of everyday tasks continue to be completed or at least facilitated by humans. The fulfillment of Moore's Law and the biannual doubling of transistor density in the cheapest electronics has installed a firm yet lightweight (mass) backbone for changes to how we navigate the physical world. Key enablers of mobility such as battery technology, computer vision, and inter-device connectivity have all come to maturity and already prove themselves useful.
Though technology for mass automation is already developed, capital and change costs have created a natural delay for adoption by business. Yet almost wherever static machines and autonomous vehicles are introduced, they soon outstrip us in output and quality. In one watershed test case, DeepMind’s AlphaGo resounding victory over 18-time world Go champion Lee Sedol in March 2016 demonstrated that machines will both soon be far more industrious than us, and could well be capable of creative potential beyond our human realm.
It’s at this intersection that frontline workers live a precarious existence. Even if humans maintain agency over most processes, autonomous machines are waiting on the sidelines. In incremental ways, robots will chew into the judgement and execution phases of these operations, when allowed.
As with most things, this one-way substitution is nudged by economics. Concern over the Trump Administration’s immigration policy and the drying up of a reliable flow of agriculture workers via the H2-A visa has prompted industrial farmers in Florida to build robots that can pick ripe fruit, a task that human dexterity and selection is still ideally suited. Meanwhile haulage is primed for autonomous vehicles with the promise of massive gains in costs and efficiency.
Regardless or your position on inevitability of total machine takeover, its importance for frontline workers can't be underestimated. First of all, scale - there are currently billions of people working in frontline roles, many of whom will likely continue to work in low-medium skill for the rest of their working lives. Broken down by trade and region, these numbers represent large bodies of people who rely on demand for their skills and experience. In California alone, 800,000 workers manage the annual harvest. Over 200,000 people are employed in private security in South Africa while in the UK, 300,000 people work in construction.
Secondly, as part of the ongoing debate about an employer's role in facilitating employee wellness - quality of work. Frontline workers frequently place themselves among operations that are dangerous, unclean and physically exhausting, to say nothing of the living conditions and access to services related to geography and the perpetual financial limitations of low-wage work. Repetitive tasks are compounded by fewer opportunities for uplift into supervisory or managerial roles.
Despite the perception that these roles will soon be the pass time of robots, an astounding amount of low-medium skills are in demand in developed nations, where the macro problem of ageing populations is exacerbated by the lack of appeal of trade work among young people. In the UK, an additional 70,000 HGV drivers are needed right now, with 50 leaving the trade each week. A shortage of welders in the U.S means that an additional 400,000 will need to be trained by 2025. The same scarcity can be found in electricians, care workers and even in low-skill work that relies on migratory labour, such as with farmhands in the US. and, in the context of a workforce drought caused by Brexit, room attendants, cleaners and hospitality service staff are in short supply in the UK.
While fundamental to economies, these roles also offer a range of atypical jobs that cater to a broad set of needs among the workforce. Even if its impact has been overstated, the tech-enabled gig economy has allowed for greater flexibility and supplementary income to millions of people. Other frontline operations allow people to work nights, or find jobs close to where people live. The tsunami of literature on the importance of collaboration and social spaces in offices should also halt to acknowledge the there should be financially rewarding roles for happy soloists and reluctant socialites. Finally, these roles often allow for a freedom of physical movement, conveniently circumnavigating the sedentary toils of deskwork.
The good news is that these topics are already the concern of foundations, universities, think tanks and some progressive businesses. A number of approaches have been taken to ensure that the frontline workforce keeps pace with accelerating technological change.
Place-based strategies use a local lens to spur regional skill potential through training and apprenticeships, an angle that also reinvigorates dwindling assets. In South Bend, Indiana, The Drucker Center has proposed The City of Lifelong Learning model, honing in on the town’s library as the physical hub for information exchange. In the UK, research from the Center for Cities and The Resolution Foundation have found that an investment in skills training in regional hubs proposed the best way for satellite towns and rural areas to benefit. Meanwhile in Johannesburg, the revival of a disused industrial site, Victoria Yards, is one of several projects determined to set the CBD on track for a more promising future.
Other tactics have targeted specific groups within the population. In Brooklyn, New York, a catering company, Emma’s Torch, train and hire refugees, an approach which is also taken on the West Coast by 1951 Coffee Company in Berkeley, California, and again in Munich by Über den Tellerrand. Deep in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the hiring of previously incarcerated citizens is the focus of salvage and materials restoration non-profit, Brick + Board, contributing to the broader campaign to “ban-the-box” in job application forms. Housing security is being tackled by The Prêt Foundation’s Rising Stars, a programme that has trained and employed over 450 previously homeless. Though these groups might sound like fringe parts of society, they represent highly motivated and in most cases agile palms to wrap around nascent technologies, a realisation that Germany has probably backed most stridently by enrolling 400,000 refugees in training programmes (30% national refugee population).
Models for learning are being challenged, a fair concession given the failure of previous education policies to keep pace with change. The notion of "giving skills to" could do with more nuance by grounding itself in the life of the candidate, while also balancing this against an industry need. Or take another stance and the recruitment of employee opinion through bottom-up, granular feedback may well outpace the summoning of boards and bloated agendas, keeping step with unforeseen changes in the workplace.
Discussions about taxonomies have also started to look at the language layer - a vocabulary is lacking for frontline work. Terms such as “upskilling”, “bridging” and “cross-training” are now essential in navigating conversations about the future of work. This principle of legibility is being tackled by US-based Credential Engine and Jobs Data Exchange (JDX) from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, each creating firmer foundations for searching and finding appropriate ways of improving, delivered directly to the end-candidate. As well as providing upward trajectories for ambitious individuals, these repositories also promise to ensure that excess, unrelated credits aren’t accumulated outside of a candidate’s needs. Rather an emphasis on “pathways” over “stages” is being taken.
Whether or not we agree on whether machines will supersede us or not, the question of our long-term employability is an important one. Now that the gap in communication resources between managers and employees has been narrowed with the use of mobile phones, potential lies in the correct appropriation of technology to meet the vested interests of all. Steps can be taken now, and shouldn’t resist tracing back to other industrial periods or backdated working experience. If anything, the market’s increasing concern for durable, sustainable systems of production, distribution and disposal provides a convenient moment to weigh up our accelerating prosperity against the human costs of achieving it.