0845 758 5070 Login or Register

Getting workers ready for an automated world

6 minutes | 13 Dec 2018

Man waiting in interview queue alongside robots

Half of all current work tasks can be automated using existing technology, which means that by 2030, between 75 million and 375 million workers worldwide – around 14% of the global workforce – are expected to be replaced by automation and will need to find new jobs. These findings are echoed in other studies – for instance, one million American jobs will vanish by 2026, says a 2018 report by the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting.

It’s not only automation displacing workers, but also technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. Already, in the U.S., 150,000 IT jobs currently need filling, says job-market analytics firm Burning Glass. It’s a similar story in the UK, where the technology industry is creating jobs at such a rate that it’s struggling to find workers with the right skills.

To keep workers from being shut out of the new economy, they will need new skills, and that will require retraining.

Who should take the lead?

McKinsey asked private-sector organisations around the world with $100 million in annual revenue, who view the skills gap as a top-10 priority, for their opinions:

Which of the following groups should lead in addressing skills gaps related to automation and/or digitisation over the next five years?


Federal Governments

Local and/or State Governments

Individual workers


Higher Education Insinuations

Primary and Secondary Schools


























As in individuals building their own individual skill sets. Corporations addressing skills gaps and needs within their own work forces. Such as universities or community colleges. All includes rest of the world.

Sign with What are your skills?

Rethinking the future for workers

Companies are struggling to figure out how job roles will change, according to McKinsey, and what kind of talent they will need over the next five to ten years. ‘Executives who saw this as a top priority—42% in the U.S., 24% in Europe, and 31% in the rest of the world—admit they currently lack a good understanding of how automation and/or digitization will affect the need’ for future skills.

There is also the issue of the speed at which technology changes, which means that likely, education and training will become an ongoing part of working life. But that’s perhaps further down the road, when workers will have some grasp of technologies. Right now, we’re talking about millions of mostly mid-career, middle-aged workers. How do they make that first step to working in an automated world?

A 2017 McKinsey report addresses the problem, suggesting that retraining must involve:

  • Sustained investment
  • New training models
  • Programs to ease worker transitions
  • Income Support
  • Collaboration between the public and private sectors

Who are the businesses taking matters into their own hands, heeding the advice of Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School: “You’re better off growing your own [workforce]”?

Example 1: Symbia Logistics

Inc. tells the story of a company in Colorado, Symbia Logistics. In an effort to raise productivity, the company introduced technology into their 1,600 distribution centres, which included sorting-and-dismantling robots, along with shrink-wrap machines, conveyor belts, and automatic printers. CEO Megan Smith told Inc., “I would say that it’s moving from a physical job to a mental job.” Automation has replaced the physical labour.

In order to keep workers longer than six months, Smith wanted them to view their roles as more than simply jobs, but careers, even though most of them did not attend university. Workers received pay raises between 10% and 15% and much needed training. Mechanics received training suited to automation, learning how to service robots. Very soon, online courses will teach supervisors new skills, including how to analyse data relative to production quality.

The company has invested more than $350,000 in retraining workers since 2016. Smith says that the centres that have made training and structural changes have seen a 20% to 30% improvement in holding on to workers.

Example 2: APT Manufacturing

APT Manufacturing in Ohio is developing high-tech workers while they’re still in high school. In 2015, the company launched an automation training program, followed by an apprenticeship program.

Students spend every afternoon for two academic school years learning electrical engineering, automation assembly and robotic programming.
They can then continue their training in the apprenticeship program. If the students stick with it and become machinists, they stand to earn $60,000 a year – that’s almost double what the job paid four years ago to build parts from scratch versus starting with a robot. None of this is cheap for ATP. The high school programs, apprenticeships and robot training costs APT $200,000 a year.

Example 3: Amazon

Futurist and author Martin Ford says, “Any kind of job that is on some level predictable, then there will be a machine that can do that.” That describes a lot of warehouse work, such as what’s performed at Amazon, where people work with

Most of those people will one day be replaced by robots, and as Ford explains to KUOW public radio, there are consequences. “More inequality, unemployment, people feeling disoriented and feeling that they’re left behind. Those are all things we need to adapt to, we need to find solutions to that.”

Amazon is doing just that with a program called Career Choice, which started in the U.S. in 2012 and has since expanded to other countries. Workers have to be permanent and have been employed by Amazon for a year to be eligible.

The company will pay up to 95% of university tuition for workers who want to train for other in-demand, which include: transportation, healthcare, mechanical and skilled trades, and IT and computer science. Some of the classes are even onsite to make it convenient for workers who want to learn a new skill. So far, more than 10,000 employees have taken up the offer, and Amazon plans to double participation by 2020.

From coal mines to coding

While not being replaced by automation, coal mining jobs in the Appalachians are being replaced by new energy sources. Forbes describes the industry in the region as ‘crushed’. The magazine goes on to say that ‘federal retraining programs are
fraught with resistance. Miners are not fooled by the lower income, time commitment and unfamiliar new fields work retraining programs have to offer. As people well-versed in their field, they're much more than easily trainable monkeys.

‘With an ounce of effort, coal mining companies could offer their own specialized retraining programs while simultaneously improving the business at large. Frankly, they’re causing their own death by not reinvesting in new opportunities. For employees who’ve been learning the same skills their entire life, it only makes sense for businesses to take responsibility for forecasting the new wave of jobs and identifying their corresponding skills.’

MIT Sloan Management Review tells a far more encouraging story.Bit Source LLC, a software development company based in Kentucky, is training coal miners to become software developers. Not all coal miners are turning their backs on this new opportunity, which can offer much larger financial rewards than they’ve previously known. The company’s goal is to move workers from “exporting coal to exporting code.”

Wind technology firm Goldwind Americas is also retraining workers from the coal, oil and natural gas industries in Wyoming, equipping them with the skills to become wind turbine technicians. It’s in the company’s best interest to do this,
because these jobs are expected to grow over 100% over the next few years.

Apprentices being trained on CNC machinery by an engineer

Is higher education still needed?

If workers have to continue to upskill, then some might wonder why degrees are needed at all. And anyway, can education keep up with technology in order to teach it? Not likely, but those with advanced degrees are likely to do the best.

Yes, they’ll learn skills for the rest of their working lives, but higher education teaches people how to think. Higher education develops traits that can’t be replicated by robots – not any time soon, anyway – such as creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence. Students learn how to adapt and to collaborate.

None of these are traits that are easy to teach, according a study by Pew Research CenterResearch Center and Elon University in North Carolina, who surveyed more than 1,400 people who work in technology and education. Referring to students, The New York Times summed up the research by writing ‘the most important thing they can learn is how to learn.’

The fact is, the jobs that automation can’t replace require a degree – the higher the better – though that in and of itself is no longer enough. According to writer and researcher Stowe Boyd, “Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold.”

Many of the study’s participants felt that more emphasis on certificates earned from online courses or workshops – and that goes for university graduates – will interest employers the most.

Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s global managing partner emeritus based in London, advices young jobseekers to, “Think about joining an organisation that is actually focused on trying to make you
employable for the long term. Not giving you a job forever, but making you employable.”
The lesson to take from the onset of automation and digitisation for workers of all ages is this: never underestimate the power of an always-expanding skillset.

industry 4.0