By Molefi Manaka
When it comes to automation and bold headlines like ‘robots taking human jobs’ one thing is almost never mentioned – how humans are able to keep their jobs despite digitization. A big factor that allows humans to still outperform machines and automation is the application of soft skills.
Robots have to compete with humans too
Think of it almost like a professional competition, and just like humans have to face colleagues to climb the corporate ladder, so do robots.
The International Federation of Robotics estimates that there were about 1.5 million robots in operation worldwide in 2014. In 2019 the estimate was that 20 million robots were set to take over manufacturing jobs by 2030.
According to an article by CNN, it was the school of Oxford Economics that looked at various factors in automation.
And while the headline shows the trend of robots having allure, it also mentions that while there are mass job losses workers who drive knowledge and innovation in all realms of manufacturing are secure, and that manufacturing is still only concentrated in large cities.
The likelihood of factory workers in rural areas losing their jobs to automation is much slimmer. The estimate is that urban areas will deal better with automation since many humans will retain their jobs due to the knowledge they bring.
The report also mentions boldly that an increase in automation creates new jobs that compare well with the jobs lost due to automation.
If you want to get ahead of the game, the 52872WA Advanced Diploma of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering is available to study at EIT.
Robots can’t do everything – just one task
The paper Is A Robot After Your Job? Gives the bottom line that when it comes to complex tasks, robots need to be minded by humans. Breakdowns and miscalculations in precision movements happen often, and while human movement is still being perfected in robotics – even that isn’t as popular as one would think.
The paper gives a simple case: If you imagine a robot trying to catch a ball mid-flight – you’d know that is nearly impossible. The speed and angle of flight will need to be calculated in seconds, but also the ball’s weight will need to be calculated.
Humans with prior experience won’t face the same challenges. On top of that robots need to be able to determine grip so the ball doesn’t bounce back. It seems like a simple task, but it is a logistical nightmare for a robot. These fine skills are a reason major car manufacturers have a dual workforce where humans aren’t just welcome, they’re needed, the paper mentions.
Where humans face job losses
A 2020 economic report by Price Waterhouse Coopers UK gave the following insights into which jobs won’t be in danger.
Financial jobs were considered vulnerable, transport jobs were considered vulnerable in the near future, and males in areas where automation is taking place are at more risk than female employees when it comes to potentially losing their jobs – but the findings show that well-educated workers committed to lifelong learning are not in danger because they are a true human resource.
Medium-educated workers face some risk, highly educated individuals face low risk, and low-educated employees face the highest risks as automation takes place, but it’s not all doom and gloom.
Robots might take over, but humans will be smarter
One of the key insights from PwC is the fact that AI and automation do bode well for humans, who will be able to gain more training and education as jobs shift. Companies will likely also have increased investment in education to help employees adapt to technological change with more skills being cultivated in STEM and digital skills.
The paper gives the example of truck drivers that might need retraining, but automation is unlikely. Also, governments, unions, and organizations like charities face very little threat from automation.
Where retraining is possible due to a threat of automation or job losses, it’s very likely that employees will be trained with new skills like creativity, problem-solving and flexibility.
Most importantly big business will look at the ramifications of mass retrenchments, possible legal cases as well as the image of companies. So far, many job losses are offset by the fact that companies cannot yet accommodate a fully autonomous change – and humans with training, skills, and education are very important for day-to-day operations to stay successful.
The only industry PwC estimates that has a potential of over 50% to really become autonomous soon and have big changes in human capital is the transport and storage sector. Sectors like education have a less than 10% chance of having robots replacing humans.
Do engineers need to learn soft skills?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics in America gives insight into engineering through the lens of Industrial Engineers. This field of engineering is set to grow in the future – thanks in part to the fact that these engineers are needed for AI and automation in the first place.
According to the 2021 Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) from the bureau, engineers involved in designing, building and maintaining any kind of system can look forward to not only secure employment but a good median income.
Industrial engineers who are employed in designing, building and maintenance in terms of providing services or creating goods have a high yield, and if their area of expertise is in the energy, information or machine minding field they are even more valuable because these engineers are meant to ensure efficiency for moving parts in, for example, factory settings.
Industrial engineers with postgraduate credentials are even more sought after and often earn well (an estimate of median income is $89,000 USD).
The OOH also estimates that in 2020, there were 292,000 industrial engineers in America. By 2030 there are estimated to be over 40,000 industrial engineers.
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Mechanical, electrical, civil and chemical engineers are also part of the system in automation, and according to Interesting Engineering, it is soft skills that are really changing for engineers.
While engineers could previously rely on education and their work experience with like-minded engineers, within a professional environment engineers have to start working with different departments more and be able to have insight when collaborating on projects.
Going forward, especially within the paradigms of Industry 4.0 engineers and other STEM professionals can become more dynamic when they take soft skills into account.
The paper Soft Skills for Engineers identified some areas where engineers can perform, and robots pose no threat.
· Communication: Engineers can explain complex solutions to other people and clients in a professional setting. Engineers with research capabilities are also important to be able to communicate their findings.
· Problem-Solving: Engineers that can identify problems or concerns and then communicate them are vital. It is important to be able to work with project managers on this.
· Organization: While these can include technical skills, simple office organization or systems are also important. Time management for instance is important for working engineers, and they have to start looking at daily routines as much as project outcomes.
· Leadership: Being able to motivate others as well as yourself is something that is becoming increasingly important. To be a leader you don’t have to be a manager, and engineers should keep this in mind. Unlike robots, they can speak up when something seems to be going wrong.
· Collaboration: It is estimated that engineers have more individual tasks, but it is changing to be collaborative. Coding is a major example of where engineers and software engineers are working together to perfect systems. Teams from different departments are becoming commonplace, and it is important for engineers to value other departments for the skills they bring, and the opportunity to learn how other departments or even fields are able to reach different project goals. Working in isolation is becoming taboo for engineers.
· Adaptability: Expanding technology means being able to use and implement changes into practice, and as a result engineers are well-served by short courses in new areas. An example of engineers with a Master’s degree is that a highly qualified engineer should be committed to adding new knowledge to their education with various learning, which doesn’t have to be more degrees at a postgraduate level – rather an accumulation of job-specific short courses. Many employers are also happy to pay for employees to gain new skills and capabilities, which means engineers don’t have to sink their own resources into being upskilled.
· Project management: Engineers able to perform administrative duties or have insight into engineering-specific administration are important, and again while the systems to perform administration can become automated, engineers able to apply it become valuable.
EIT’s BSB50420 Diploma of Leadership and Management addresses some of the soft skills engineers can acquire in a 12-month qualification.
During the year of study, engineers should be able to have knowledge of developing and using emotional intelligence, communicating with influence, managing business operational plans, leading and managing workplace relationships, managing team effectiveness, and developing critical thinking in others.
Students can also select a number of additional subjects that covers business risk, HR skills, and data.
These skills are not only vital but have been considered free from the kind of labor automation and robots’ intent to replace in the future. With that engineers can let out a sigh of relief that their education, coupled with their individual skills is often a considerable safety net in job retention.
Is A Robot After Your Job?. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315662425_Is_A_Robot_After_Your_Job [accessed Apr 29 2022]
International Federation of Robots, 2022. Top 5 Robot Trends 2022. [online] Available at: Top 5 Robot Trends 2022 – International Federation of Robotics (ifr.org) [Accessed 12 May]
Annekken Tappen, 2022. CNN. Robots could take 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030. [online] Available at: Robots could displace 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030 – CNN. [Accessed 12 May]
PwC, 2021. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Analytics. [online] Available at: Learn how AI and Analytics can transform your business: PwC. [Accessed 12 May]
Bureu of Labor Statistics, 2021. Industrial Engineers. [online] Available at: Industrial Engineers : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov). [Accessed 12 May]
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Industrial Engineers,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/industrial-engineers.htm [visited April 19, 2022]