Who Will Remember How to Do the Robot’s Job?

Who Will Remember How to Do the Robot’s Job?

In the coming decades, automation is expected to displace vast numbers of employees performing routine tasks in a variety of industries, including Asian factory workers and low-wage jobs in the US manufacturing, logistics, and service sectors. One study posits that half of the world’s work can already be automated using current technologies, though in many cases it is not yet economically efficient to do so. The jobs most ripe for automation are those involving routine, repetitive, manual tasks that robots can perform more rapidly and precisely than humans without experiencing boredom, injury, or fatigue.

Nonetheless, many of the people who have held these jobs up until now possess knowledge that may still be valuable to their employers even after they are replaced by machines. In that light, Quartz’s Sarah Kessler considers what automation will mean for training and knowledge retention as fewer and fewer employees remain who remember how to do the robots’ jobs:

As GE has automated its factories, its executives say they still value experience like [assembler Bill] Knight’s, if only because it helps them catch machine errors and, in some cases, better understand how to program machines. “If there’s something wrong in the calibration of this equipment, I need to know that,” says Denice Biocca, GE’s head of HR for supply chain and services. “I need to have some sort of understanding of what [the process] should be in order to know, ‘the machine says it’s tight, but I know it’s not.”

Knight, however, won’t be around forever. Future workers who do his job won’t have his experience and won’t be able to double-check the machines. So how will they be trained?

It’s not just GE or manufacturers that face this potential problem. Repetition and apprenticeships are popular training strategies in many types of businesses with high automation potential, including restaurants, client service companies, accounting firms, investment banks, and law firms.

This is yet another reason why employers of blue-collar workers might consider transitioning their older employees into mentorship roles when they want to keep working or can’t afford to retire, especially manufacturers that are having trouble recruiting and retaining employees with the skills they need. More broadly, the advent of automation underscores the need for organizations to ensure that as the baby boomer generation retires, they hand off as much of their institutional knowledge as possible to their millennial successors. Millennials and the generations that follow them are looking at a very different work environment from that of their elders, which might not give them the opportunity to develop the same skills.