Automation affecting both the high- and low-skilled workforce

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While there’s a reskilling imperative for organisations to remain relevant in the fourth industrial revolution there’s a ‘skill and will’ issue, according to Ravin Jesuthasan

Automation is creating a need to reskill both high-skilled and low-skilled parts of the workforce, said Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, speaking at a Harvard Business Review event to launch his new book Reinventing Jobs.

While 27% of organisations are changing the way jobs are designed to be done by those with more skills, 25% are changing the way jobs are designed to be done by those with lower skills, he said.

Jesuthasan gave the example of the impact the US opioid crisis has had on labour rates in certain states, leading manufacturers to introduce robots into the workforce. “So now we don’t need as highly-skilled humans [to deal with the legacy equipment], we just need someone to train the robot, so it has reduced the skills premium,” he explained. “Where skills have gone up is with data scientists – not the data scientists of old as the skills premium has been raised because we’re asking much more of them than analysts.”

“These are two different examples of the power of automation to change work,” he said, adding that this means there is a need to reinvent jobs and an imperative to reskill the workforce.

Pointing to the evolution of work, Jesuthasan explained that it has shifted from the second industrial revolution where “jobs were careers” and “work was essentially aggregated under one roof”, to the third industrial revolution where “work escaped organisational boundaries” and was about the democratisation of information, to the fourth industrial revolution where we are now.

In today’s “democratisation of work” there is “virtually zero certainty”, but organisations have eight different means for contracting work, including independent contractors, robotics and AI, and volunteers, Jesuthasan said. “This means the resulting organisation is more permeable as talent moves about more… the organisation becomes a hub or ecosystem for work,” he said.

Mapping out the shift in work, Jesuthasan pointed out that the assignment is shifting from jobs to tasks, the organisation from self-contained to permeable, and the rewards from permanent to impermanent. These shifts have created the potential for “reorganising and rethinking work” and the need to think about “when we start pushing the envelope”.

When researching how organisations and HR are preparing their workforces for automation and AI, Jesuthasan said it “jump[ed] out” at him that organisations are underprepared in terms of “deconstructing jobs and figuring out which tasks can be automated”. They are also failing to “identify a reskilling pathway for talent to transition into the new world of work”.

He pointed out that “the belief we can automate a whole job is extremely misguided”. Instead “automation doesn’t affect jobs it affects tasks,” he said. Until organisations have deconstructed jobs and identified what tasks can be automated, they won’t be able to use automation and AI effectively, Jesuthasan said.

There’s also a “skill and will” issue organisations should consider, he continued, pointing out that not every employee wants to reskill and change career. “The deal in the past was ‘I learn, I do, I retire’ – people think 'I’ve learnt and now people are telling me I need to reskill and I don’t want to',” he said.

Jesuthasan went on to outline the changing requirements of leaders in this space, highlighting a “shift for leaders from filling jobs to asking questions on how we deconstruct jobs, organise work and reconstruct different jobs”. Other leadership shifts will include a move from employment qualifications to work readiness, and from developing traditional career pathways to reskilling pathways for their teams.

The most critical factor, he continued, is the “ability to continually retool society and the workforce” and drive “continual learning” so that a mindset of ‘learn, do, learn, do, rest, learn…’ is created. “If there is one skill that will be most prominent in leaders it is that ability to orchestrate the ecosystem,” he said.

Also speaking at the event was Kate Rock, a conservative MP, member of the House of Lords and member of the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. She said that while “AI has been in development for years”, we’re now “entering a crucial time”.

Pointing to the government report on AI that she worked on, Rock said “significant investment in skills and training are needed to navigate this”.

“Retraining will be vital,” she said, highlighting a need for subjects and curriculum in the education system to adequately prepare the future workforce for AI. “AI brings opportunities and risks and challenges and how the UK responds to that will have implications for years to come,” she said.

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