A few weeks ago, we had invited a set of chief executives and HR leaders of large Indian companies and conglomerates to a discussion on the future of the workplace. The group around the table represented some of the brightest HR and business minds in the country and, over cups of coffee, the conversation veered towards the oft discussed area of how automation is affecting the workplace. We have all been talking about it – in some ways more in abstractions than in real figures or examples. Here was the first time we had people talk real life experiences of how their organizations are actively working towards a future where jobs will be automated and employees would be redundant.
The reader might still stifle a yawn – yes, we are all aware of it. It’s the future of the world. And I would have probably felt the same way. But what shocked me personally as I sat on that table with 10 of India’s largest companies representing different industries, is that it suddenly was all too real. Software engineers were being gradually made redundant through 'bots' that could do their task more efficiently, agricultural scientists were losing jobs because there were apps that could interpret the nature of problem that was affecting crops, paralegals were not required because AI tools could look for issues in legal contracts and summarize key points for lawyers to work on.
Let’s put things in context – as India adds close to a million people to the working population every month, it is critical for the economy to constantly add jobs. But, India over the last few decades has had a leap from an agricultural economy to a service-oriented economy and while in the recent past there has been significant push towards driving the manufacturing sector, the results are still to be felt. As a broad estimate while the value added in the services sector has slowed like in the agricultural or industrial, it still is growing at about 1.4 times the industrial sector. Interestingly, the job creation story works in the reverse – in two decades the percentage of employment in the services sector has gone up by only 3%. And on top of this, over the last five years most Indian companies have seen employee costs grow faster than revenues.
So as companies face a more complex global environment where countries are increasingly, to quote the Economist, “closing the gates and raising the drawbridges”, there is little doubt that the focus for the future lies in optimizing cost of delivering products and services to remain competitive. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Indian companies are rapidly figuring out ways to drive higher productivity through automation. This automation, as I mentioned earlier, is happening equally in both the manufacturing as well as services sectors. But as jobs disappear, there is a parallel increase in the need for high-end jobs – in technology, services and even manufacturing, but these jobs are not in India. Our education system produces very few people who are truly capable of taking up these jobs.
Are we therefore heading towards a future where we will actually not be able to provide employment for people joining this workforce? And, are we also heading to a future where companies will need to retrench significant number of their workforce who will lose their jobs to robots and AI software? How equipped are we to reformat the structure of our education system to produce better quality talent that cannot get replaced by machines and software? And, as one of our participants suggested that day, as companies start having to hire less and fire more, will the government bring in legislation against retrenchment? And finally, is there a humane way to go about the process of telling that 50-year-old agricultural scientist whose job is being replaced by an app that he needs to learn a new skill – and really, can he?
As I left the room that day, I couldn’t help but think of the future for my young daughter – I should actively encourage her to not be an engineer or accountant but perhaps focus on playing a game or learning ballet.
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