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For Amazon, Automation May Play a Big Role in HQ2

Sep 14, 2018 5 MIN. READ

How many jobs created by the new headquarters will rely on automation?

The jury is still out on where Amazon will set up its second headquarters. One thing we do know, though, is that the digital giant will likely settle in a city with a strong talent pool to help fill an estimated 50,000 new high-tech jobs.

While many cities rejoiced at this unprecedented chance to increase opportunities for their local workforce, few have considered the potential long-term impact. What would it really mean to bring Amazon into your backyard?

There has been much speculation around the specific types of jobs that Amazon would bring, but less about how much those jobs would rely on the growing use of automation and how prepared the local industries are to adapt to competition and growth. Automation has garnered praise for saving time and promoting efficiency when completing repetitive tasks, such as data entry or processing requests, but there is potential to create efficiencies in other areas as well.

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Automation has the potential to have a very dramatic impact on the way work is done today—not just because it could eliminate certain jobs, but because it will rewrite the skill sets companies prioritize—and the criteria they use to make hiring decisions.

So, yes, the prospect of 50,000 plus jobs for a city’s growth and development can be enticing, but if in the long-term jobs in certain industries are subsequently reduced or taken away completely due to automation, is it a net positive? Maybe—if organizations and affected workforces are able and willing to adapt to changing times.

Automation is not a new topic in the field of workforce development—in fact, there’s historical precedent for it. One enduring, classic example of automation impacting the workforce is the Industrial Revolution – a huge change for our nation’s workforce. The transition from hand-production to machine production created fear of widespread unemployment. In reality, the first Industrial Revolution did cut many manual jobs, but it also created more opportunity for new jobs and increased overall efficiency.

Sometimes when a new advancement comes along, we see the technology and automation as a new threat. Just because we often treat automation and the threat to our current workforce as a challenge, does not mean that we need to solve it with completely new tools or solutions. Yes, it probably does require a degree of innovation, but there are plenty of proven career development tools that individuals and organizations alike can use to their advantage in changing environments, different organizational cultures, and in support of varying organizational priorities.

Leveraging Current Talent

Despite the increase in automation, the threat of displacing workers is primarily a concern to singular industries and there is actually much opportunity for job creation and employee adaption as a reaction. Is our current workforce ready in terms of their skillsets for more automation? What will the competition look like for employees with the right skillset in the next five years? These are just a couple questions organizations should be asking as they prepare their workforce for the future.

While numerous reports about automation focus on technology companies and what they can or should do to adapt, other industries can learn from them, too. For example, the financial services industry is said to also have a high potential for automation and increased productivity. Embracing this as an opportunity to train current employees to work with the new technology will allow organizations to save time and expense of onboarding new employees. The federal government, for instance, could benefit tremendously from these lessons in the face of challenges like hiring freezes.

The effects of automation are stronger in some industries than others. Overall, though, it serves to highlight the human elements that have yet to be mastered by automation or artificial intelligence (AI), like social and emotional abilities (e.g., customer service, oral communication, creativity) or keeping up with growing technology needs (e.g., critical thinking, data analysis, digital skills, programming, advanced IT).

Obviously, not all occupations focus on these categories. So how do you identify which skills are important for the future in your industry? With some thoughtful analysis, organizations have a few options when it comes to leveraging their current workforce. They might assess employee skill gaps and training, or retrain employees in growing areas. Or they might use data regarding employee strengths to redeploy qualified employees to those growing areas.

Alternatively, some organizations may ultimately decide that these analyses, assessments, and potential for training are more expensive than hiring new talent into changing roles. That will largely depend on how large the employee skill gaps are and the ease of filling these roles with outside talent. The talent pool is just one avenue to consider for adaptation; resources also play a key role in optimizing your workforce.

Leveraging Tools

It’s important to examine the career development tools you have or could develop. Training, retraining, and redeploying employees may sound easy and overly simplistic to some, but if you do not have the right tools in place, this becomes much more difficult. So which tools are “right”? This will vary by organization, but some examples could include:

  • Career pathways/career maps
  • Job aids
  • Job analyses
  • Employee development guides/programs
  • Training guides

Now that we are thinking about preparing for the future, what responsibilities lie on the employee versus the employer? How do you leverage developmental tools in your current arsenal?

These materials may already exist in many organizations and provide valuable advice to employees regarding how they can reposition themselves to move into other occupations.

Organizations can revise, expand, and promote such developmental guides and materials to employees and offer increased training opportunities for newly prioritized skills. Organizations without the necessary preexisting developmental tools can create them to offer a direct focus on the future of the necessary skillsets, valued job functions, and organizational priorities.

While there is much an organization can do to prepare itself for the future of automation, there is also a degree of responsibility that rests on existing employees to develop and expand their current skillset to meet the needs of the changing workplace environment. There will be increased value on employees who are adaptable and receptive to changes.

What’s Next?

Despite the threat of certain jobs due to automation, there will likely be increases in other job functions to monitor and maintain the technology, as well as fill in the gaps where automation still is not strong enough. It will likely require some upfront costs to organizations to develop and revise current strategies, but the investment in your workforce is a valuable strategy in the long-term. As automation redefines how work is done, organizations must understand that innovation and flexibility will continue to be highly valued both as a corporate value, and as individual skills.

Those in the federal workspace should check out ICF’s 2018 Federal Digital Trends Report to learn more about public sector digital transformation. This report can serve as an additional resource for planning and adapting to changning technologies. What other factors will define an organization’s successful adaption to automation? Let us know what you think on LinkedIn.

Written by ICF Senior Associate Kathryn Solook

Download the Report | 2018 Federal Digital Trends
We asked 500 federal leaders to identify the biggest obstacles they're facing, from tech adoption to citizen engagement. Here's what they said.