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Commentary: Are you prepared to be replaced by robots? Some at Walmart soon have to be

Beth Humberd and Scott F Latham from the University of Massachusetts Lowell look at what workers can do to avoid being replaced by automation.

Commentary: Are you prepared to be replaced by robots? Some at Walmart soon have to be

Wal-Mart Stores Inc's shelf-scanning robots replenish inventory to save employees time when products run out as seen in this handout photo released Oct 26, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

MASSACHUSETTS: Walmart recently said it plans to deploy robots to scan shelves, scrub floors and perform other mundane tasks in its stores as the retail giant seeks to lower labour costs.

While the retail giant did not say which jobs, if any, might be lost as a result, the announcement – and the many more surely to follow at other big box retailers – begs the question: How can workers prepare for a future of increasingly automated work?

Millions of today’s jobs are expected to be affected by artificial intelligence and automation as part of the “fourth industrial revolution.” But just which occupations are most at risk has been a guessing game among economists, futurists and scholars trying to predict winners and losers.

READ: A while more before robots and artificial intelligence run our lives for us, a commentary

As experts on workers’ identities and careers and industry and technological change, we developed a new tool we believe will help workers more accurately determine the fate of their professions – and figure out how best to prepare.

Automation has transformed the productivity of manufacturing since industrial robots first started painting, cutting, welding and assembling in the 1960s. (Photo: AFP/OLI SCARFF)


A host of research studies have examined where industrial revolution 4.0 is likely to wield its greatest impact.

Driven by a focus on cost and efficiency, most predictions pit one group of workers against another. For example, blue collar versus white collar, skilled versus unskilled, college-educated versus not college-educated and even predictions by race and gender.

While these broad groupings may grab headlines, they offer little guidance to individual workers at a time when, more than ever, individuals are expected to take responsibility for managing and driving their own careers.

Rather than focus on efficiency or cost, our research offers a more nuanced and sustainable tool for examining the fate of one’s profession: Value.


Our research is based on the idea that every individual’s work creates value in his or her day-to-day job. 

That value may be something a customer pays for, may enable co-workers to do their own jobs or help the company to function internally. In any case, every job provides some degree of worth or usefulness to another party. 

The value is constant, but the way it is created and delivered to the end user can be threatened by automation and artificial intelligence (AI). 

Only after we’ve evaluated that can we determine how the coming wave of technological change will affect a job’s future prospects. To assess these threats, we need to break value down into two key components.

READ: Confidence to face an AI-dominated future requires preparing Singaporeans for jobs not yet created, a commentary

A cashier smiles beyond a Walmart logo. (Photo: REUTERS/Daniel Becerril/File Photo) FILE PHOTO A cashier smiles beyond a Walmart logo during the kick-off of the 'El Buen Fin' (The Good Weekend) holiday shopping season, at a Walmart store in Monterrey, Mexico, November 17, 2017. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril/File Photo

First, value is created by the skills required to complete a job, such as a programmer’s ability to code or a painter’s knack at prepping a wall and applying paint cleanly. In general, we’ve found that when skills are standardised, they are more likely to be threatened by automation or AI.

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The second component of value, though, is separate from skills. It’s the method of delivering a job’s value to someone else, which can also be threatened by new technology. We call this “value form”.

For example, while a college professor’s skills and expertise in a particular domain may not be under immediate threat, the form in which their value is delivered is certainly threatened by online learning platforms and the increased use of AI education tools.

By considering these two threats together, workers can better assess if their jobs are at risk.


Our framework has four categories: A job could be displaced, disrupted, deconstructed or durable depending on the level of threat facing its skills and value form.

Displaced signifies the jobs that are most in danger. Our analysis shows pharmacists, radiologists and librarians all belong in the displaced category.

Disrupted means the skills are highly threatened, but people desire the recognised or current method of delivery, which often involves a human interaction. Examples include fast-food servers, accountants and real estate agents.

Deconstructed flips those two around: The skills are hardly standardised but automation poses a serious threat to how the job’s value is delivered. Photographers, college professors and livery drivers are in this category.

(Photo: Unsplash/Kevin Grieve)

Durable jobs are the safest ones because both the skills and the value form are difficult or costly to automate. Lucky workers in this category include electricians, plumbers and physician assistants.


In some ways, the value framework confirms what others have found.

For example, no one would have argued that shelf stockers at big box retailers like Walmart would be a safe job for years to come – as the retailer’s announcement confirms. Putting them in our framework, their primary skills of keeping inventory stocked and shelves clean are severely threatened because they are standardized and routine.

Furthermore, robots can deliver more value through automated transmission of inventory information. Thus, our model shows these workers will most likely be displaced.

However, our focus on value suggests that other predictions based merely on categories of at-risk jobs may be missing the mark. 

For example, some people predict many jobs are threatened simply because they are routine, non-college-educated or blue-collar, like plumbers, electricians and hospice workers. 

Yet, rewiring an electrical system in a historic home or caring for a hospice patient are non-standard jobs that require a human to create and deliver value, which is why these jobs can be quite durable.


Once workers understand the value they create and the threat automation poses to their skills and value form, what actions can they take?

The common answer they’ve been given thus far involves encouraging them to engage in lifelong learning. But a focus on value the way our model provides much more nuanced guidance.

Workers in deconstructed jobs, for example, don’t need new skills. They just need to learn to adapt existing skills to new forms of delivery. Conversely, workers in disrupted jobs need training to work alongside robots and AI systems during periods of transition.

READ: Action and caution needed, as business schools respond to disruption, a commentary

A Walmart department manager helps stock shelves with school supplies as the retail store prepare for back to school shoppers in San Diego, California. (REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo) FILE PHOTO: Walmart department manager Karren Gomes helps stock shelves with school supplies as the retail store prepare for back to school shoppers in San Diego, California, U.S. August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

And even if displaced workers – a fate that is likely to be on the horizon for Walmart’s shelf stockers – need to consider retraining, the traditional higher education system is not well suited for the future of work. 

Universities should focus on the longer-term bachelor’s-to-master’s pathway. Rather, individuals need access to quick, modular and adaptable pathways to new jobs.

The 48-year-old parent who just lost his job as an accountant is not able to begin a new four-year degree programme. But a three-month programme to earn a cybersecurity certificate would be doable and all he needs.

READ: Workers everywhere face the same challenge - rapidly depreciating skills, a commentary

The future of work is already here. Days after Walmart’s announcement, workers at Stop & Shop, a large regional grocery chain in the Boston area, are striking over increased automation. But we have time. 

Let’s worry less about robots and AI itself and more about the value workers can create in different jobs in a landscape that will continue to change for years to come. Value is the only constant.

Beth Humberd is Assistant Professor of Management, and Scott F Latham is associate professor of Strategic Management, both at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation. 

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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