retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Helluva way to start a Monday, but...

Re/code has a story, based on a new study by PwC, saying that close to 40 percent of US jobs could be "vulnerable to replacement by robots in the next fifteen years," the most of any country with an advanced economy.

According to the story, "30 percent of jobs in the United Kingdom could be threatened by technical advancements in automation from AI and robotics, compared to 35 percent in Germany and 21 percent in Japan ... The US has a higher percentage of jobs under threat by automation because more workers in the U.S. are employed in positions that require routinized tasks, like filling out paperwork."

Normally, this is where I would make a quip about the Borg, and how "resistance is futile." Or a Terminator/Judgement Day joke, suggesting that the domination of Skynet could be imminent.

But I don't feel much like being clever about such things this morning. This is serious stuff, and requires serious people and serious public policies to cope with these changes.

I don't believe that this move toward automation and technological replacement of people in certain jobs is intrinsically evil, but I do think that we have to do a couple of things in reaction to this likely inevitable shift.

First, there has to be a national consensus that people with jobs that can be replaced with technology need to be offered the opportunity to be retrained so that they can be relevant in a new economic reality. People in government love to talk about public-private partnerships, but this strikes me as an area tailor-made for such an approach. It is time to stop talking and start acting in the country's best interests.

Second, I do think there are going to be areas in which people actually can become a differential advantage to their companies. Michael Sansolo had a piece here last week about how the real estate industry, against all odds, has remained people-centric. And when I think about retail, I believe that for the companies that make it so, the deployment and utilization of great people can serve as an enormous competitive advantage.

That means investing in people, so that they feel invested in the business. It means figuring how to stop dickering around about minimum wages and/or living wages, and mapping out a way in which great people can maximize their earning potential because they make a difference in creating and sustaining great companies.

There always will be new ideas and technologies that offer retailers the opportunity to shave down their labor numbers. Scanning was one. Self-checkout another. Checkout-free stores, like the Amazon Go test, may be next ... and, inevitably, there will be another great idea after that.

This is where resistance may not be futile - if the resistance is not just about saying "no," but rather creating strategies and tactics that are people-driven and people-focused.

But here's one thing I do know. The march of technology will continue, and its footsteps will only grow closer and louder. But, Spoiler Alert!, not everybody thinks so.

The Re/Code story concludes by pointing out that the PwC researchers "point to a few policy interventions that might be explored to address the effects of broad job loss due to automation, like workforce re-training programs or universal basic income schemes.

"But new policies require government action, and in the U.S. - where job loss to automation may reach 38 percent by the 2030s, according to the study - the Trump administration doesn’t seem immediately concerned.

"At an event with Axios Friday morning, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that job loss to technical advancements in AI and robotics 'isn’t even on their radar screen' and that he imagines these changes are more like '50 to 100 more years away'."

This is the point where the Borg might say, "What fools these mortals be." And even allow for a small, collective smile.

The future is here, like it or not. We have to open our eyes and deal with it.

Like I said. Helluva way to begin a Monday.
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