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Threat of automation and improper skills in workplace

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Robots at work

• More Investment In Human Capital Key To Withstanding Automation-World Bank
• We Have Little Or No Control Over Technology-induced Joblessness-Inoyo
• Technological Advancement Will Engender Efficiency, Speed, Improve Quality Of Service Delivery
• Automation Or Not, We Appeal To Members To Employ Human Beings, Not Robots-MAN

When President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, in April said developing countries faced the risk of losing two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist to automation, many Nigerian workers perhaps thought such developments were not meant for their clime, at least for now.

They must have consoled themselves that even if it happened, it would be in the far future considering the country’s penchant for lagging behind in technological advancement.

Sadly, evidence abound lends credence to that “doomsday prophesy” by Kim. Alas! automation is not only gradually snatching jobs from Nigerian workers, but also threatening to return more of them to the heavily saturated labour market.

Kim, who stated this in his opening remarks at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings in Washington, United States had said: “We estimate that two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist in developing countries will be wiped out by automation.

“Let me just give you one example. Two, three years ago we were arguing about whether 3D printing would ever be capable of taking over garment assemblies because garment manufacturing has been sort of the classic light industry that goes from country to country, based on wages.

“Two years ago, I was told, ‘no way, garment manufacturing still requires human hands. This will always be the way it is.  It’s going to be this way for at least another decade.’ But I just met a woman who told me an exciting story about how she is making couture cotton T-shirts and other clothing in Haiti with 3D printers.  And she said, ‘you know, it’s exciting in the sense that we know that Haitians now can run 3D printers,’ but the downside is that there are far fewer jobs.”

He continued, “So, something we were arguing about two or three years ago of whether it was possible, is already happening right now in Haiti. And so for every country in the world, we have to think very seriously about what investments we need to make right now in order to prepare ourselves for the economy of the future. And for developing countries, one of the most important things is definitely more investment in human capital.”

The rising automation of the workforce and adoption of robotic technology may be enhancing productivity and profitability in the industrial and services sectors, but the potential effect on job losses remains a concern for stakeholders in the country and beyond.

Specifically, stakeholders are worried that the continued importation of raw materials and finished goods, rather than exploring local production capacity, would continue to trim employment opportunities, even as others automate manufacturing processes that hitherto required or made use of manual efforts.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in June said the unemployment rate in the country rose from 13.9 per cent in the third quarter to 14.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2016.

The NBS, which made the disclosure in the “Unemployment/Under-employment Report for 4th Quarter of 2016,” noted that the period under review showed that the population of unemployed was 27.12 million in the third quarter, compared to 28.58 million persons in the fourth quarter.

With technology changing the way businesses operate, by creating a shift from manual to automated processes, thereby reducing the number of workers, the unemployment rate in the country is sure going to surge. This among other reasons explains why the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other labour organisations are expressing concerns about the impact of the adoption of technology, particularly robots would have on the country’s labour force.

A recent working paper released by the Research Department of the ILO, observed that the job-destroying nature of technological change is mainly embodied in process innovations.

The report disclosed that the use of machines, robots and computers in the production process is expected to diffuse widely into all sectors of the economy, as artificial intelligence, humanoid, mobile and collaborative robots would be further developed and used in small and large firms. This development will continue to replace and transform jobs, however, at the same time there may be limits to automation.

The report, which disclosed that mobile robots are used to perform a variety of tasks, as opposed to the large, industrial robots, which perform the same tasks repeatedly, explained that, “Collaborative robots augment human tasks, and allow workers to increase productivity by focusing on the more sophisticated non-routine tasks.”

Across sectors in recent times, robots are being handed jobs hitherto done by humans. These tasks include testing or inspecting products, picking and packaging, or assembling small electronic sets.

According to experts, as robots become smarter, faster and cheaper, they are increasingly taking on more “human” capabilities and traits, which include sensing, dexterity, memory and trainability.

With these qualities, they can perform with ease, and it becomes nothing for them to perform repetitive tasks currently performed by manual labour, but in a safer, faster and more consistent fashion.

Ongoings at a vehicle factory in Lagos State, where commercial vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks, medium and light trucks are assembled show the extent that automation has percolated the manufacturing industry.

In the plant expected to assemble and produce about 10, 000 trucks annually, its production line, including filling machine, inspection line, turning over machine, debugging workshops up to its finished products are all dominated and powered by high technology with just a handful of humans.

However, much as stakeholders believe that human efforts cannot be entirely erased in the way businesses carry out their operations, the slow growth of manufacturing jobs in the country has troubling ramifications for employment patterns, and the overall workforce.

While they maintain that unless more production and consumption takes place, more people are bound to lose their jobs as the same output can be achieved with fewer workers.

Consequently, they are stressing the need for organisations to resort to the use of technology in retraining their workforce to fit into other business activities using the automation process.

President, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Frank Jacobs, believes that if the manufacturing sector replaces human beings with robots, “it is going to reduce our esteemed planet, as well as, reduce the company’s workforce. And for a country like Nigeria, where we have a high level of unemployment, that won’t be the best way to go and as far as MAN is concerned, even though we cannot dictate for our members what procedures or processes they should use in their operations.”

Jacobs, who noted that manufacturers were at liberty to decide whether to switch to automation or not, added that the association can only appeal to them on the importance of contributing to job creation, which is their social contribution to the country.

“We normally approach our members and try to appeal to them on the need to engage human beings because we have no power to force them to employ or not to employ robots. So for now, all we can do is appeal to them that they should try to satisfy their own social responsibilities to the country,” he said.

For industries that have already switched to automation, Jacobs said: “We can only use moral persuasion, but we cannot dictate to them who or what to employ because a man in business is concerned about his bottomline, that is, how much profit he makes. If going into robotics technology or automation will increase his profit, he will do it. All we can do as an organisation is to appeal to them to contribute to job creation.

“It is important that we advise them not to overdo the automation thing because if they tow that line, it is going to cause severe unemployment in the country, and when unemployment level is too high, it would affect them socially because security will become impaired,” Jacobs said.

“We as manufacturers have a social responsibility to help our economy, to help our country. I believe that most Nigerian manufacturers are conscious of that, and if they are going to involve robotics or automation in their production processes, they may not do it to the extent that employment of human beings is adversely jeopardised.

That Nigerian enterprises are automating their production processes simply means that the country is moving with the current trend, and not necessarily that the human workforce would be drastically reduced because there are certain jobs that need to be done manually. This is the view of President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) of Nigeria, Bobboi Bala Kaigama.

Kaigama, who pointed out that automation is controlled by manpower both in the public and private sectors, said employers still have a duty to improve skills of their staff, and help them adapt to new technologies through training programmes.

Kaigama, who suggested the redeployment of staff to other areas not affected by automation, and where they would be useful, urged the Federal Government to invest all the recovered loot in infrastructure, manufacturing and any enterprise that would lead to job creation and economic growth, stating that the lengthy period of negligence and adverse policies of government has led to the under-utilisation of needed resources for maximum economic benefits, which is a major reason for the massive unemployment and poverty in the country.

His words: “Whether it is industries in the public or private sectors, we need automation; we need the use of technology. New technologies cannot come from the blues; they must be done through training and retraining. So we encourage employers to train their workforce in areas of new technology. This would enable us keep pace with the rest of the world.”

President, and Chairman of Council, Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPM), Udom Uko Inoyo, cautions that since automation and artificial intelligence are already replacing jobs, the faster the society responds to it, the better for us as a nation.

“The world has become a global economy with technology eliminating barriers to skills, knowledge, goods and services mobility between geographies. Everywhere in the world, both private organisations and governments are seeking to improve efficiencies, and technology continues to offer the platform/solution, irrespective of the stage of a country’s national development. So, whether we like it or not, technology-induced joblessness will affect us as we would have little or no control over it, except we choose not to keep pace with the rest of the world, and that is not an option. So, the question should be – what should we be doing differently to prepare for this and take advantage of the opportunities technology has to offer to grow our people and the economy?”

In the light of the above, managing a production outfit laden with a good number of robots would sure become a core part of a competitive manufacturing business, hence the demand for highly skilled robot-savvy engineers, programmers and service technicians will grow.

Inoyo, Executive Director/Country HR Manager, Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited agrees with this. “Since we really cannot stop or prevent technological advancement, the best thing will be for us to stay prepared because it is either we embrace it, or be left behind. And when I say us, I am not referring to government alone, I mean everyone. What we should know is that technology is only projected to eliminate certain types of jobs, change the nature of work and introduce new types of jobs requiring new skill sets, but will not eliminate the need for humans. The key words are ‘agility’ and ‘adaptability.’

“Government and organisations should therefore, begin to retool their workforce to equip them with the skills required in the new/evolving era. An agile and adaptive workforce is the key to individual and organisational success, so people should be trained to be able and willing to take on new skills and new jobs. The era of specialising in a single area and staying stuck to one type of job for a whole career is a thing of the past. So, the ability to be nimble and move on to something new, and speak the language of the new era, will keep employees relevant.

“In reality, there are some employees that will remain stuck in their old ways. They may either be unwilling to adapt or are just plainly untrained. And a decision has to be taken to ease such employees out of the workplace, otherwise they would become obstacles. But majority of workers who would be skilled and willing to take on the new opportunities that technological advancement offers will be enablers for job creation. With these ones, the human capital of the country will be unlocked and Nigeria will be attractive to investors.”

He said the key message to the government and organisations is training, reorientation and retaining of their workforce. Remember, technology is also an age thing. In comparison, you find a lot of the younger ones embracing it and faster. With youth unemployment in the country, this provides another opportunity to target young Nigerians, who are ready to take on new challenges.

“Let me restate again that while organisations may shrink with technological advancement due to the automation of certain activities, technology will also offer huge opportunities for people who are willing to learn new skills and trade to become entrepreneurs and self-employed. For example, in the human resource space, there are a lot of untapped opportunities for deployment of technology. If you take the whole chain of activities from recruitment, to people management and development, and to exit, there are systems that have automated hitherto manual processes thereby reducing the number of people required for these activities. But a lot of organisations have not keyed into this.

“Take recruitment for instance, it will be so counter-productive to have people sit down today to go through the process of sorting thousands of CVs manually for days given the automated systems that gets this done within hours. And this includes testing for employment (aptitude, skill or psychometric). Larger organisations are utilising systems that enable employees to effect changes of personal records, such as bank details, additional dependents, additional qualifications, emergency contact numbers, and residential addresses thereby providing accuracy and timely management of some benefits. Managers are also able to access data on their employees without recourse to HR for ease of decision making. I wish such technology would be deployed across the public sector given the critical challenge that we face in resourcing positions. I often wonder how our political leaders independently access the career profile of their staff, without going through multiple channels that may compromise confidentiality. The bottomline is that a lot of well-run organisations today have fewer employees in their human resources departments, well-trained and skilled, and focused on managing these processes. The key word is efficiency. No business leader is interested in efforts. They want results, and often now, technology helps deliver that,” Inoyo said.

He explained that: “With technological advancement – automation and artificial intelligence, efficiency would grow, speed and quality of service delivery would improve, access to data, talent, goods and services would become easier and faster and new jobs will be created for those willing to learn and adapt. So, rather than entertain fear of joblessness, we should focus on the benefits and retool our workforce to take advantage of these benefits.”

Fears are abound that shylock employers may use automation as smokescreen to unduly cut down on employment, but Inoyo, who has performed human resource functions in Americas and Europe, said even though there are organisations that are sub-optimal when it comes to employee wellbeing, “every organisation that is not a not-for-profit organisation is in business to make profit. Even the not-for-profit organisations continuously seek to deliver their services in the most efficient manner. So, all forward- looking employers would definitely embrace technology and automation, which we must admit, sometimes lead to the shrinking of the organisational size. But again, automation does not replace the need for people completely, it only introduces the need for new skills, either within or outside the organisations and people who are well skilled and adaptive would still be relevant.”

Banks are not backbenchers as far as automation is concerned. Already challenges associated with automation in banks, have found vent in so many ways as these institutions strive to use technology to serve their client’s faster and do more with less. In some cases, things do get sloppy and customers are left flustered.

For instance, at a first generation bank along Murtala Mohammed International Airport Road, in Lagos State, there is always a crowd of patrons milling around the banking hall waiting to do business. Not so much because of the sweltering clientele the branch has, but because of the gross lack of hands to do the job that automation is still battling to deliver expected results.

At times, the crowd in the bank swells to the point that tallies are issued to keep track of those that arrive earlier. Only recently, Ecobank Nigeria, a subsidiary of the Ecobank Group, announced that it was merging 74 of its branches, with a promise that it would deploy staff from the merged branches to other projects.

A statement it issued not only reaffirmed its commitment to digital transformation, which would enable customers carry out banking activities online, thereby reducing the need to visit physical locations, it also stated that it was shifting some of its activities to digital channels in order to improve customers’ experience at reduced cost.

On merging branches and playing massively on digital channels, as well as the dangers this may pose to the employment of many, the CIPM president said, “Banks exist for profit and continuously, they want to become more efficient, improve their service delivery and expand their outreach to customers. So, if digital channels will help them achieve their business objectives, they really cannot be stopped. But I do not see this as posing any danger. While they may no longer require people for their in-banking hall transactions/activities, people will be required to manage the digital channels and this digital channel service approach will also offer a new set of job opportunities requiring new skill sets so what I think people should be doing is to start preparing themselves for these new opportunities.

“While some of these new opportunities that digitalisation would throw up may be outside of the bank, the current bank employees can begin to prepare themselves for it and the banks can also help by providing/supporting the necessary training. If not, these opportunities would be taken up by a new set of prepared individuals outside of the bank. And there are many young talented Nigerians ready for that space. The irony is that none of these young ones know anything about queuing up in a banking hall with tally numbers to complete a simple banking transaction.”

He continued: “Today, I can’t remember how many times I visit a bank, but still handle my transactions as appropriate, and from the comfort of wherever I find myself at that point in time. This has been made possible only by technology. So, we need more for ease and speed with which we carry out banking operations. Again, what is important for the current staff is training, reorientation and retraining. For the agile and adaptive, there is nothing to worry about.”

President, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institute (ASSBIFI), Mrs. Oyinkan Olasanoye, revealed that automation has affected the sector for sometime now, leading to some of its members losing their jobs.

Olasanoye, however, admitted that automation can only reduce the number of people working in the sector, as rural areas where technology has not much grip, due to issues like power and network failures, still need to have access to banking services.

She described the sector as “a service sector, where human feelings determine and affect the marketability of our products. Despite the fact that technology is affecting the sector, we still need human beings.”

Head, Consulting, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Nigeria, Cyril Azobu, admits that when businesses are enabled by technology, the risk of people losing their jobs is ever present. But without a doubt, technology makes people work faster, and takes businesses ahead of the curve.
“From the company side, you don’t want to lose the human side of business because in providing services to customers, you still interface with people for delivering solutions. While delivering solutions to people, you should not lose sight of the fact that people are important and your ability to connect with people would define your success as a business entity,” he said.

Azobu continued: “With the people you have within the establishment, the ability to engage with them, manage them appropriately and get them to engage with the customer- the community to which your services are selling becomes very critical,” he added.

He said that businesses need to realise that technology is good, but there is also the need to be careful with the human part of business because they are providing services to human beings.

Economist and investment analyst, Biodun Adedipe, is of the view that whenever there is a major improvement in efficiency in a particular sector of the economy, there appears to be a drop in the number of hands that would be needed to carry out tasks.

“So automation any day will improve efficiency but the hands relieved also would naturally be retrained to fit in to other areas, but the greatest thing is how we handle it.

“If we don’t recognise that those affected need to be retrained and given fresh tools that would make them fit into the new environments and even evolve into new sectors, that is when automation creates unemployment,” he said.

He stressed the need for the country to embrace automation and information communication technology, adding that if we don’t do that now, “Nigeria would be left behind. In the history of humanity, more jobs are created when there are disruptions. That is how countries evolve and emerge, “ he added.

He pointed at China saying within 10 years of embracing technology, it was able to move 23.1 per cent of its population from below poverty line to above the poverty line.

“So, we really can’t blame unemployment on technology; it is about the direction that we are going, and the kinds of policies driving it,” he stated.



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