THE GREAT REWRITE: THE UNEXPECTED RISE OF THE HUMAN
It’s a well-told storyline: Employees have historically felt threatened by technology making them irrelevant. Today, robots in the factory and artificial intelligence in the office are making themselves ever more useful to business managers — and rewriting job descriptions for millions of human workers.
Canny companies, however, are figuring out how to use technology to advance workers rather than replace them. Retaining and empowering employees isn’t just about good corporate citizenship — companies ranging from communications giant AT&T to the startup online retailer Boxed have decided it makes sense for their business too. The key is equipping workers with the skills they need to make the most of these emerging tools. A new era is here, led by the enablement of the very valued skills of human beings.
“With advanced AI easily accessible through the cloud, established businesses can put employees to work on higher-value activities and let technology handle the repetitive tasks. Startups and challengers have opportunities to leverage intelligent automation to punch way above their weight,” said Cliff Justice, principal in Innovation & Enterprise Solutions at KPMG LLP.
It’s an ongoing process. AT&T had a moment of reckoning about six years ago, when it looked at emerging technologies and the changing marketplace and saw how imperfectly its workforce aligned with the future.
“Our leadership team was witnessing significant transformational trends across all our businesses,” said John Palmer, AT&T’s chief learning officer. “When we stepped back and looked at the skill sets of our employee base, nearly 250,000 employees, we realized that we simply did not have the skill set necessary for the products of the future.”
AT&T started a massive employee “reskilling” program, spending $200 million to $250 million a year.
“We literally took every job across our corporation — we have around 3,000 of them — and mapped specific competencies required to be successful in those jobs,” Palmer said. “And then, in partnership with the business units, we mapped specific curriculums to all of those competencies.”
Employees now know exactly what skills it takes to get and keep any job. They can see where a job function is headed: Is it growing or shrinking? What’s the salary history?
“I can pull up the job that I’m interested in, see the competencies that are necessary, engage in learning I need at no cost and prepare myself for the future,” Palmer said. “We want to be fully transparent with our employees so they can make better decisions. Full transparency can be scary at times. You may be telling people that their job will not be as prevalent as it was. But we believe it’s much better to have those conversations proactively and give employees an opportunity to do something about it.”
Employees who finish the training they need get credit as “skills pivoters,” and staffing teams are made aware of it. “We see that skills pivoters are two times more likely to get new jobs, and they’re four or five times more likely to get a promotion or a progression,” Palmer said.
When companies like AT&T offer employees a chance to stay relevant, it’s up to employees to take advantage, says Alexandra Levit, author of forthcoming book “Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future.”
“People who are paying attention and realizing they need to pivot are the ones who are going to be successful,” Levit said. “Peope have to be extremely vigilant WE SEE THAT SKILLS PIVOTERS ARE TWO TIMES MORE LIKELY TO GET NEW JOBS, AND THEY RE FOUR OR FIVE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO GET A PROMOTION OR A PROGRESSION. ã JOHN PALMER, Chief Learning Officer, AT&T about where is the technology going — ‘how can I change my skill set so that I’m doing meaningful, valuable work that the company is going to appreciate?’”
Boxed sells bulk groceries online — the five-year-old company has been called “Sam’s Club for millennials.” CEO Chieh Huang started the company in his garage and was thrilled to reach $40,000 in sales in his first year. Today Boxed does nearly $100 million a year.
At its fulfillment center in Union, New Jersey, Boxed added so much automation that by last year the company realized it could do without 75 workers there. But the company didn’t lay off a single person. Even while establishing its own robotics department, it has been retraining its people to manage and cooperate with the technology.
“Everybody was freaked out when we started building the robotics and the conveyor belts,” Huang said. “But what we said was, ‘We’re going to train you. You don’t need a college degree. You don’t even need a high school degree. What you need is a willingness to learn.’ Within this next year, we’ll basically have retrained the entire workforce.”
Some warehouse workers have moved into customer service or corporate positions. Others do similar work with better tools. Pickers who assemble orders used to spend the day walking around with carts and a list. Now workers are stationed at set locations along 2.5 miles of conveyor belts, and the products come to them. Workers have been trained to use headsets that tell them when an item arriving at their station needs to be picked.
Automation doesn’t need to mean elimination. The fact is that U.S. unemployment is at a 17-year low despite the digital revolution. Hundreds of new occupations didn’t exist years ago, from robot technician to app developer.
“ATMs didn’t fully replace bank tellers; now the tellers are well-versed in the bank’s products and focus on broader customer service,” said Mike DiClaudio, principal in People & Change Advisory at KPMG LLP. “They’re taking on different responsibilities, supported by better data, better analytics and better training. That creates a better user experience for the customer and a more rewarding career opportunity for the teller.”
As is often the case, technological advancement allows people to focus on their higher-value purpose.