Planning for the no-collar workforce: where will automation leave us?

Planning for the no-collar workforce: where will automation leave us?

Global Account Director | pymetrics

Rapid advances in AI, cognitive technologies and robotics are upending traditional assumptions about careers, the role of technology and the way work gets done in the logistics sector. pymetrics' Tom Viggers looks at what Deloitte labels the ‘no collar’ trend where we are reimagining an entirely new organisational model where man and machine complement each other’s skills in a new, unified digital workforce and explores how the logistics industry can best exploit it and plan people strategies in the light of such incredible uncertainty.

“The history of logistics,” according to McKinsey, “is also a history of automation, from the steam engine to the forklift to today’s robotic pickers and packers.”

That evolution is continuing today. Amazon has teams of robots working in its warehouses. Einride is making deliveries with autonomous electric vehicles. Optoro is using data to optimise how companies arrange returns. And at the time of writing, an unmanned ship is being developed to trace the 400-mile journey of the Mayflower, to be launched next year – presumably making waves for a generation of unmanned freight ships in decades to come. 

There are less obvious examples too. Recruitment is an enormous challenge in the logistics industry, but parts of it can now be automated. At pymetrics, we remove the need for manual application screening, saving thousands of man-hours of time.

Jobs that humans perform better than algorithms

What do we make of this brave new world, and our place as people in it? According to Yuval Noah Harari, we should be concerned. “The crucial problem” he says “is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms… By 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.”

Then again, we’ve overstated this one before. According to the BBC, people in the early nineteenth century believed the introduction of the weaving machine would spell the end for skilled jobs altogether. Perhaps we just fear what we don’t yet know.

Or maybe it’s a bit of both. Roy Amara famously pointed out that we tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term and underestimate it in the longer term. In reality, new technologies may make it to the lab quickly, but there’s a chasm to cross before they fall into general usage. As McKinsey points out: “For all the excitement, most logistics companies have not yet taken the plunge.”

Robo-replacement seems some way off

The stories we tell are not always supported by what’s going on in the real world. Notwithstanding the logistics industry’s history of, and potential for, automation, in 2019 it’s undersupply and retention of drivers that everybody is worried about. Far from displacing jobs, technology has created them, especially with the explosion of e-commerce. Robo-replacement seems some way off.

Moreover, to think about technology’s influence on the workforce only in terms of the number of jobs that it will or won’t displace isn’t sufficient. We also need to think of the quality of work too – particularly when we consider what will be automated, which tend to be repetitive, unstimulating tasks.

This is a vital distinction within the industry today. Elizabeth De Jong, Director of UK Policy for the Freight Transport Association, warns that: “Unless we treat people with respect and dignity, we cannot expect them to work for us, especially in this period of exceptional employment, with levels at the highest since records began in the early 1970s.”

Being treated with respect and dignity isn’t just about being given the right working conditions, but being given the opportunity to express ourselves as human beings. Daniel Pink, in Drive, says that what motivates human beings are three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. People need to be given the opportunity to make their own decisions, to feel trusted as good at what they do and to feel like they are part of a bigger story. None of these are required by robots or algorithms.

Distinguishing human beings from technology

Deloitte’s No Collar Workforce goes further, zoning in on the capabilities that distinguish human beings from technology, and fundamentally reimagining the workforce in terms of where those capabilities are going to come from.

“Intelligent automation solutions may be able to augment human performance by automating certain parts of a task, thus freeing individuals to focus on more ‘human’ aspects that require empathic problem-solving abilities, social skills and emotional intelligence.” (Deloitte)

It’s easy to see how this maps out - it’s all very well having a robot deliver your birthday flowers, but a human being’s going to do a much better job at delivering them with a smile. If you’re anxious and frustrated that a delivery is overdue, you’re not looking for sympathy from a chatbot.

But there’s a flipside too. Human beings might be much better at common sense and empathy than robots, but they’re not necessarily better at fairness. For all the (right-and-proper) focus on bias in algorithms, all biases originate with human beings; technology can only replicate them where they already exist. At pymetrics, we audit and adjust our recruitment and talent-matching algorithms to be free of bias - you just can’t do that with human beings. 

Machines have got to the point where they can reliably surpass human beings when it comes to recognising patterns and spotting novelty, in a dispassionate and insightful way. But having the capabilities to use that data in an ambiguous real-world context, factoring in ethical considerations, and then empathetically communicate decisions are all things that only human beings are able to do - and those are things that are becoming ever-more important.

Once we start thinking in concrete terms, the future of logistics seems a lot less scary – because we realise that the machines are here to join our team, not to make us redundant. As part of the no-collar workforce, the instances where we are likely to be treated like automatons, with all of the indignity that brings, will be reduced. But both the need and the opportunity for people to act as human beings will be greatly increased.

About pymetrics

pymetrics is a platform that matches people to jobs using deep insights about their uniquely-human traits. For the logistics industry today, this unlocks faster and fairer recruitment, more agile operating models, and deep insights that help them prepare for the future of work.