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Surviving Automation: It's Now Coming for White-Collar Workers

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Concerns about the increasing automation of lower-wage and service jobs have been in the zeitgeist for several years now. But it’s increasingly clear that automation can also take over some of the tasks associated with white-collar workers, such as contract generation (lawyers) and chatbots (customer support agents).


With both cultural changes like the COVID-19 pandemic and technological developments like robotic process automation (RPA) accelerating the move toward automation, white-collar professions previously considered AI-proof are in the crosshairs. Surviving automation in the workplace will only become more difficult, as McKinsey has upped its estimates for the number of workers likely to need to find different employment by 2030, with COVID-influenced automation listed as one of the reasons for the shift.


RPA is disrupting job roles previously thought safe,” said Dave Coker, a senior lecturer in fintech and finance at the University of Westminster in London, where he is also the employability director. “Any job role having a significant percentage of manual activity will be disrupted, and the further up the value chain (salary or impact of work) we go, the more benefit the firm will realize, driving the change.”


Certified Public Accountant Bryce Welker, who owns CPA Exam Guy, stopped practicing as a CPA right around when automation was beginning to affect the role, but he has seen its impact on others in the field in the years since. In accounting, automation is meant to cut down on the work of rote tasks like bookkeeping and data entry, Welker said, with the idea being that CPAs can then focus more on value-added work.


In the era of digital transformation and big data, value-added work increasingly means data analysis and the synthesizing of large amounts of customer and enterprise data into actionable information concerning trends and strategy,” Welker said.


Automation Comes for Us All


Automation is increasingly prevalent across all sectors. Deloitte’s most recent annual global survey found that 73% of responding executives said their organizations were working toward intelligent automation — up 58% from 2019. That work was at varying stages, but the number of organizations deploying intelligent automation at scale nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020.


The potential of automation to realize cost savings in service or lower-wage jobs is known — for example, the use of chatbots in customer service or automated data entry for entry-level clerical work is not new. There are legitimate concerns about unemployment for workers in these roles, but the story has typically been that those in so-called professional roles would be safe. Automation was sold as a way to free them from drudgery, not the path to their redundancy.


But with the potential including the use of software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools to automate various tasks and small scripts doing work that is currently someone’s job, no industry is immune to workforce augmentation via automation, said Charles Edge, chief technology officer of Bootstrappers.mn.


Automation is impacting roles as varied as accounting, IT, management and human resources, stock trading and coding. Algorithms can do sophisticated work such as legal contract review and medical imaging analysis — sometimes more effectively, given their ability to deal with large amounts of data. As automation becomes more intelligent and is increasingly adopted by a variety of enterprises, it seems clear that some job loss will result.


Surviving Automation


Adapting and expanding one’s skillset is one tactic for avoiding redundancy via automation. “Seek out any training available, either internally — many firms provide internal training — or via well-regarded sites such as Coursera, Data Camp, etc.,” Coker of the University of Westminster suggested. Pay attention to news and developments in your field, he said, and keep your own skills up to date accordingly.


Also, the tools that allow automation to happen must be created, Edge pointed out. That involves software developers, coders, UI/UX professionals, yes — but it also requires expertise from those with deep experience in a given field.


One of the best ways of surviving automation in your field is to find a way to get in front of the people designing automation software in order to help them do their jobs better, Edge said. “That requires a little understanding of how software works — but more importantly, to move into those product design roles, we need to think more deeply about what we do and why.


Additionally, as companies invest more in digital transformation, there will be increased demand for professionals with experience in what that looks like in their particular industries. This represents an opportunity for savvy professionals who can combine their expertise with the tools of those transformations. “If you cannot stop the automation, lead it,” advised Lilia Gorbachik, a contact center and UCaaS product manager with experience at RPA company Kofax.


Look at that value-added work mentioned by Welker — in your own role, which high-value tasks could you spend more time on if you reduced the burden of rote responsibilities? How can you become a more valuable employee in the digital era? “This could include arming themselves with data analysis certifications, becoming advanced users of the industry-specific software and applications that are redefining work, and staying on the lookout for professional credits and development opportunities that keep them on the cutting edge and therefore in demand,” he suggested.


And finally, the effects of automation aren’t all bad, Coker pointed out. “The dull and mundane will be de-emphasized, and more interesting work will emerge,” he said. It might sound counterintuitive, but suggesting areas of your work with the potential for automation can pay off you best know your tasks and doing so could free up time for more rewarding work, and will position you as someone who can roll with change.


“The key thing to keep in mind here is change is coming; it’s inevitable,” Coker said. “So make the best you can out of the situation.”


It’s also important to keep in mind — and continue to develop — the skills that automation cannot replicate. These are the ones that make us human: kindness, empathy, creative decision-making, effective people management. Robotic process automation can automate a cluster of the processes around decision-making, data insights and prediction, Gorbachik said, and employees can use those capabilities of RPA as a tool by leveraging them to free up time to make a bigger impact in the areas that only a human can tackle.

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