Jobless growth ahead?

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As automation picks up in each and every field of work, tasks are getting simplified and a lot of decision trees are getting into action. What happens to the people who used to perform these activities?

Nearly two decades ago, customers used to write applications to their banks for change of address; we queued up to buy tickets; relied on the memory of the salesman to know the price lists and stock levels; filled out forms to register; saw accountants who kept track of cash, expenses and income; found clerks everywhere to collate information and reproduce them in the desired formats. Secretaries were indispensable. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, artistes, directors and many more relied on reams of paper to keep track of what they were doing. Newspapers, periodicals and books were the only source of disseminating knowledge and information. In each of these areas, automation has transformed the way of life.

L1 Support is the new normal!

Think of the schools, colleges, dispensaries, hospitals, medical stores, provision stores, cinema halls, restaurants, hotels, reservation desks that we visited two decades ago! And compare them with what we see now. Market sizes and GDP have increased but the number of people employed in these places haven’t.

We find computerised stations, websites, apps and smartphones in each of these places. We do not have gloomy environments any more; old-looking experts who wielded a lot of powers have been replaced with young turks (rookies?) and machines. And interestingly, the knowledge and insight what was needed of the person to perform well is no more required. Anyone who is able to speak a few words to engage with the customers in their buying process is good enough! And of course, there is a lot of hardware and software now. So, the store needs either inhouse or outsourced staff to support them in installation and maintenance of these assets.  We do not need the high-end skills of salesmanship, customer relationship and product recommendation. All that is needed is Basic level (Level 1) of support – let’s call them L1 Support!

Good for the enterprise, But a challenge for the society!

We can see that the job demands are reduced and simplified; an organization doesn’t have to depend upon the tacit knowledge that its people gathered over a period of time. And at the same time, the productivity has gone up, thanks to the automation. Hence, the firm can have less number of people than it employed earlier; moreover, it doesn’t have to depend upon the skills and abilities of its people at individual level. So, good for an enterprise!

For our society, it causes disruption because some have to be retired out of employment, some have to be retrained and some could just find no alternate employment opportunities until they upskill. Such disruption has been in the air for the last couple of decades, starting with IT deployment in the private enterprises to public sector institutes in India and higher levels of automation such as robotics, mobility, analytics, IOT and social.

Our educational institutes have been reforming their syllabi, introducing new courses and developing their ecosystem right from admissions to placements. Senior leaders in enterprises have been learning to innovate and transform at a pace higher than ever before. And our new reality is that the skill levels in demand are either ‘high-end’ which deal with challenges in design, productivity, processes, systems, human relations and decision making or ‘low-end’ which are enough to transact business using the automated systems. With increasing economic prosperity, the wage levels are likely to go up and per-capita income will gp up. However, with the great gulf between the skillsets in demand, the wage levels will accordingly be disparate and hence, imbalances in socio-economic equilibrium are imminent.

School to Work and back!

In the last decade, we have seen new job roles have got created due to new developments such as digital marketing, cloud computing, analytics, smart phones, renewable energy, climate change convention, nanotechnology, biosciences etc. While the new jobs are in the area of high-end skills, very soon, we will find these scale up fast and the other roles will start emerging. Since the speed of change has been on the rise, one has to adapt fast and be ready for between-the-jobs transition in one’s work life. It’s easier said than done. It calls for planning one’s career and finances. One has to be ready for the cycle of school to work and back.

Every coin has two sides; one has to learn to deal with both of them. Likewise, automation is keeping the wheel of innovation moving. Productivity rises, but it creates various kinds of pressure on the society. It is inevitable. So, one has to learn how to deal with both the sides of this development. Same is the challenge for the social scientists to help the society balance the pros and cons well.

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