United States: Video Killed The Radio Star: Will Automation Kill The Labor Force?

Seyfarth Synopsis: Automation is redefining the workplace. While some may fear that automation will displace workers, automation can enhance a company's workforce and improve productivity. In this segment, we examine industry changes resulting from an automated workforce and identify future trends.

Many of us remember our neighborhood video store closing its doors, forever changing the way we select our Friday night entertainment. Today, we can stream a new movie release from the comfort of our own home or interact with a large red kiosk after picking up groceries at the local supermarket. Automation seems inevitable and appears to be spanning most industries.

Automation has already reduced the number of workers throughout the manufacturing industry—brightest on the radar these days being the reduction in the labor force needed by the coal industry. That trend is likely to continue. But in recent years, automation has become more widespread. Retailers are closing their brick and mortar stores to do online business. And self-checkout aisles at grocery stores are ubiquitous. Should these changes be welcomed or feared?

While recent news articles and economists' predictions can fuel the anxiety of the American worker, there is reason to be optimistic when examining this trend as a whole. Economist David Autor reminds us that prior stages of technological growth did not devastate, but rather transformed, the U.S. labor force. If we look to the past, we can find numerous examples of when invention and improvements were feared for reasons similar to those espoused today:  mass production of the automobile, mechanical harvesting in agriculture, and more recently the advent of ATMs replacing bank tellers. Rather than displacing an entire population, these innovations improved productivity and created new job functions for workers that enabled them to increase their economic value.

Such promise appears possible with automation in the retail industry. For example, Lowes recently rolled out the "LoweBot," an automated robot that helps customers find products. It even assists employees with inventory-related tasks. Rather than simply eliminate the store's employees, though, Lowes states that LoweBots augment the customer service the company can provide. A LoweBot can tell a customer what aisle to find paint brushes, but staff can demonstrate their expertise and offer suggestions for customers' at-home projects.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the sometimes frustrating self-checkout aisles are enhancing the customer's experience by automatically reading what's in the customer's basket without the need to scan each item.

Anticipated Trends Resulting from an Automated Workforce

Change is inevitable, and often difficult to embrace. A fitting analogy comes from the introduction of music on television by MTV. On the one hand, it may have killed the radio star, as the Buggles so eloquently put it. But at the same time MTV made music accessible to a larger audience. To succeed, musicians had to be open to evolve and master the new visual medium. Similarly, the era of the American worker isn't coming to an end, but it may be in transition. This new workforce, like the musicians facing a video age in the 80's, may need to develop new specializations and skills to obtain those future positions.

Automation is here and it's changing the labor landscape: "we can't rewind, we've gone too far." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Here are some trends future employers can consider as they step into the age of automation:

Potential uptick in age discrimination claims. Jobs augmented with some form of automation will likely require greater proficiency in technology. Some speculate that this will put older workers disproportionately at risk because of the belief that younger workers are more adept with technology. This perception, coupled with the aging of the baby boomer generation, may increase the number of age discrimination filings. Employers may need to monitor the latent effects of any new policies, including those relating to worker's expectations, more closely. In choosing a qualified applicant, employers can ask questions about an applicant's technological skills, since those questions necessarily concern the applicant's ability to perform job-related functions. However, hiring committees should ensure their decisions are guided by business needs and not assumptions about an applicant's grasp of technology based on their age.

Increase in workplace safety. Automation of dangerous tasks should improve safety in manufacturing, distribution and other industries, which keeps workers safe. A decrease in the number of injuries on worksites should be accompanied by a decrease in the number of worker's compensation claims. In addition, automation should also serve to improve companies' compliance with OSHA regulations.

Retraining or cross-training current workforce. New jobs are likely to require specialized skills to build and fix the new technology. Employers can begin to offer training programs to their workforce to ease the transition into the emerging jobs created in response to a more automated industry. This would be an efficient way for employers to retain their workforce and combat the negative effects of high-turnover and understaffing. An early investment in cross-training may both build skills that help both workers increase career mobility and allow the company to meet its demand for skilled workers.

New job types. The roll-out of new technology in the workplace is likely to generate new types of jobs with new functions and areas. Workers will be needed to maintain, fix, and repair new technology.

If you have any questions or concerns and wish to discuss, Seyfarth's team of seasoned attorneys is available to assist you navigate the legal landscape and the future of work. We also invite you to peruse Seyfarth's Employer's Guide to the Future of Work.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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