As business leaders who work with scores of senior leaders across the private and public sectors, the topic of automation and its implications for workers is inescapable—and often anxiety-inducing. Understandably so. Technology and social changes are poised to reshape nearly every aspect of what and how work gets done, and by whom. When we speak and write on this topic, the audience response is usually intense and ranges from excitement to deep anxiety.
Our response to these fears is two-fold.
First, the details matter—a lot. While every industry will likely be impacted, the nature of those impacts may vary considerably. To understand what’s coming, we have to appreciate the make-up of tasks within a job, the demographic factors at play in particular industries and regions, and regulatory or other external “brakes” (particularly social attitudes) that might impede automation. Sweeping generalizations can invariably mislead more than they reveal.
Second, there is a need to confront the issues head-on. Putting our heads in the sand won’t stop the inexorable advancement of technology. So, an approach grounded in facts rather than sensationalism is critical. Neither Pollyanna nor Chicken Little will likely have an accurate picture.
Let’s consider a particular case to illustrate these points. When the media cites professions that may decline because of automation, some of the most common are jobs involving the movement of people and goods—trucking, taxis, ride-sharing, and the like. It often makes for good headlines and everyone “gets it” quickly. But the outlook is way more complicated, nuanced, and not necessarily as dire as portrayed.
These jobs are consequential both for their sheer numbers—there are roughly 4 million drivers in the US, and that’s excluding those who drive for ride-hailing services—and for what they represent to some of our economically transitional communities. Taxi driving has been a gateway principally for immigrants (94% of yellow cab drivers in New York City were born outside the US) to make a working class income, although median income for taxi drivers is less than half that of the overall workforce. The opportunities for full- and part-time drivers have expanded—and will likely continue to expand in the near term—as ridesharing has grown in the US and globally. That expanded labor pool is unlikely to endure, however. Many forecasts estimate, ours included, that shared autonomous vehicle fleets will begin being introduced in 2020 and start materially cannibalizing the driver-driven segment by the middle of the decade. That leaves a big question: What future jobs can these people take on, and what training and skills will they need?
As with many technological advancements, new types of mobility—including autonomous vehicles—will likely prompt gains in efficiency and productivity, making each mile of travel meaningfully less expensive. That can leave consumers with more surplus income to spend for other goods and services. Where might that income go, and what jobs might accompany it? As demographic trends collide with new types of mobility, we could easily imagine that aging Baby Boomers will need aides to travel with them to medical appointments and run errands—even if “driving” is not part of their job description. Travel and leisure will likely continue to grow. In general, there will likely be an expanding market around mobility management services that could offer incremental job growth. There will be new businesses that will digitally enable the planning and consumption of passenger and goods movement to be more efficient, enjoyable, productive, safer, cleaner, and cheaper. That could mean everything from maintaining vehicle fleets to remote monitoring. These are in adjacent spaces. (An analogous shift has occurred in the distribution of jobs and job growth in the energy sector, as renewable sources increasingly supplant fossil fuels as sources of employment.) The combination of mobility and smart cities can also provide broader benefits, like increased access to healthcare, efficient energy, and different jobs.
Even the much-anticipated emergence of driverless trucks could prove a boon for today’s drivers. The trucking industry faces a seemingly-chronic shortage of commercially licensed drivers, and the major industry group estimates that nearly 900,000 new drivers will be needed in the US over the next decade. The industry also faces high turnover and low interest from younger workers. Now consider one possible future that could occur soon, where autonomous trucks travel highways with a human “monitor” in the cab who can assist with particularly challenging driving like navigating city centers and ensure goods are delivered safely. Since the vehicles can operate for much longer periods without stopping, fewer total drivers would be needed, helping to alleviate the shortage. The jobs that remain could be less fatiguing and require shorter stints away from home (again, because the truck can operate almost constantly). Much depends, of course, on how both technology and regulation evolve, but we may find that there is a soft landing, as the current generation of truckers ages out and self-driving systems mature and become more widely adopted.
A balanced approach means acknowledging that, yes, rideshare drivers in urban areas are likely going to see job changes and job pressures. Long-haul truckers, too, although likely later and more slowly. But it also means appreciating that new, potentially higher-value jobs are also likely to emerge, and that there can be society-wide benefits to these changes. The question is will these new jobs be in sufficient numbers to make tomorrow’s workers contributing members of our society?
Throughout history, automation has often helped increase labor productivity and focused workers on the higher value-added elements of work. Just think how factory automation has reduced the back-breaking parts of many jobs and shifted the emphasis toward higher-skilled machine operating. Similarly, why wouldn’t we want drivers to do more valuable, productive work, provided we can ease the transition for those displaced?
We ultimately need to help today’s workers—drivers, factory workers, and beyond—discover where demand for skills will be in five to 10 years and help them gain the necessary expertise and experience to do them well. Historically, wholesale job retraining has been challenging to scale, but the inexorable nature of this transition demands that we try to help them be productive in an even more digitized world economy. We already have a skills gap; we need to figure out how to digitize and skill those workers to match them with the demand for available jobs. There is a collective dialogue that should be engaged now so we can create meaningful, fulfilling, and productive opportunities for all.