AI and Automation’s Impact on the Workforce


For years now, human resources professionals have heard about artificial intelligence and automation with increasing frequency, and with good reason. The two closely-related technologies are being used for more and more tasks within organizations. Most are used to replace humans engaged in repetitive processes; things that are completed the same way over and over again. The implementation of one or both technologies can have positive impacts on the bottom lines of companies.

While that’s a positive point for employing the technology what is the impact to workers? Are they displaced, replaced, or repurposed within the organization?. During a presentation as part of the HR Exchange Network’s HR and Future of Work online event, Southern New Hampshire University’s vice president of research and insight, Dr. Jerome Rekart, took a look at Southern New Hampshire University research that not only explains the opinion landscape around the technologies, but looks at whether or not companies are prepared to handle the human impact of the continued proliferation of artificial intelligence and automation.

AI and Automation
Defining the Technologies
From a consumer perspective, artificial intelligence is already rampant in daily life. Apple users are using ‘Siri’ to answer simple questions and even conduct some tasks; dictating a text message or playing music. Amazon’s family of Echo devices are much the same. When put in the context of human resources, AI is a bit more focused in that the technology “replaces some type of cognitive path or makes [a job] easier.”

Automation is not much different. Through AI, automation occurs when a machine does “some kind of physical task” over and over again.

Employee and Employer Opinions
As mentioned earlier, there are mixed opinions on whether the adoption of these technologies is a good thing or a bad thing for the workforce. Dr. Rekart pointed to two separate pieces of research that draw a stark contrast between two significant groups: employees and employers.

Last year, Gallup, in a partnership with Northeastern, surveyed employees about their opinions regarding artificial intelligence and found that 70 percent believed AI would, in the long run, kill more jobs than it will create. Conversely, McKinsey’s research a year earlier focused on corporate leaders. They were asked whether or not AI would force a reduction in the workforce. Only six percent said it would; meaning 94 percent said they didn’t believe that it would necessitate a reduction at all.

Impact in Five Years
Given that most experts believe that AI and automation will have drastic effects on most – if not all – organizations, Dr. Rekart asked the question: how do HR leaders perceive AI and automation will impact their organizations over the next five years?

Consistent with expert opinion, Rekart’s research found that 68 percent of respondents said there will be some type of impact. Looking closer at the breakdown of that grouping, 32 percent of respondents expect to be affected by both AI and automation, while 20 percent expect to be only affected by AI and 16 percent only automation. That said, how do organizations feel about the impact of technology? Will it be of great benefit to the organization and its employees or will it be a detriment. Dr. Rekart’s research points to a beneficial impact.

The first question posed to respondents focused specifically on the company’s bottom line. Rekart says the results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Almost 80 percent said that it would be either somewhat or very positive.”

But the next question was even more intriguing.

“When we asked the next question,” Rekart continued, “we saw a slight reduction there… but almost the exact same numbers.”

But when asked whether they felt there would be a displacement of employees within their organization, many respondents indicated that they did anticipate such an effect. In fact, the average across all HR leaders shows that it is believed that almost one-third of labor will be displaced by AI or automation within the coming five years.

So where will most of the displacement come? According to Dr. Rekart’s research, most will come from

All of that said, it begs the question: how are HR leaders preparing for the impact of artificial intelligence and automation. According to Dr. Rekart – most aren’t.

When asked “have you or your organization begun to plan for employee displacement by AI or automation,” a little more than 58 percent said no.

Where to Begin
So how do companies begin to prepare their workforce? There are several different ways. Four Dr. Rekart suggested were:

Directing employees to seek employment outside the organization
Providing career counseling
Relocating displaced employees within the organization
Providing upskilling opportunities
In his research, Dr. Rekart put that question to HR professionals. Nearly 60 percent said they would provide some type of upskilling opportunity. Going deeper, Dr. Rekart wanted to know how, specifically, those organizations planned to deliver that upskilling.

Nearly 80 percent said they would provide professional development and/or training. Others pointed to providing tuition assistance/reimbursement for college coursework while others said they would provide opportunities to earn badges/non-degree credentials.

The Path Forward
Given that information, Dr. Rekart wanted to know what advice HR professionals would give employees whose job is likely in danger of being displaced by AI or automation? Nearly 35 percent pointed to getting new skills or training. In comments related to that finding, HR professionals pointed to the need for employees to “begin reading about AI” and trying to “outsmart the technology” by finding a job it will never be able to do. But for Dr. Rekart, all comments were summed up in the following statement:

So how do we move in that direction? Dr. Rekart said, “We all have to recognize AI and automation are going to affect off our jobs.” He also said things such as professional development, upskilling, and education/tuition assistance/reimbursement will have positive benefits including productivity, loyalty and return-on-investment. Finally, Dr. Rekart said, “Many organizations are trying to be responsive to the workforce, to its needs and to the changes that the organizations are feeling.”

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