Will a robot take your job?

As artificial intelligence progress, this question is becoming increasingly common. Robots can now lay bricks at a rate of 1,000 per hour and are being used in fields from healthcare to manufacturing to reception.

In engineering, routine aspects of the design process may well be taken over by computers and machines.

So will you be out of a job? According to American website willrobotstakemyjob.com, the answer depends upon what kind of engineer you are. If you are an electrical engineer, for example, the site puts the probability of your position being automated between now and 2024 at a comfortable 10 per cent. There is even less cause for worry for environmental engineers and architectural and engineering managers, whom the site reckons with a likelihood of automation of just 1.8 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively are ‘totally safe’.

Spare a thought, however, for ‘operating engineers and other construction equipment operators’ and ‘locomotive engineers’. With a 95 and 96 per cent automation probability respectively, these roles are ‘doomed’ according to the site.

Even within specialisations, mechanical engineers (1.1 per cent) might be ‘totally safe’ but ‘mechanical engineering technicians’ (38 per cent) should ‘start worrying’.

So will your job go? In many cases, Siemens Head of Human Resources Nicolette Barnard and Siemens Australia Head of Learning and Development Sue Carter say, roles will disappear as technology precipitates disruption across the sector.

Rather than eliminate people altogether, however, Barnard and Carter say roles within the profession will evolve.

“The answer is possibly yes,” Barnard said, asking whether people need to worry about robots replacing them during a presentation at the recent Digitize 2017 conference hosted by Siemens in Sydney.

“But that’s not the right question. The question is ‘what job will you have when a robot takes your job?’”

The above question is being asked amid broader uncertainty about the impact of digitisation on the engineering workforce. This incorporates considerations not just about what roles will be created and will disappear but also about how the industry and employers can attract and develop a digitally literate workforce along with how HR and recruitment practices can be adapted to deliver better outcomes.

First, Barnard and Carter say, it is important to address misplaced fears about technology and overall employment levels. Despite technological advances in recent decades, they point out that the national unemployment rate has dropped from around nine per cent in the early 1990s to 5.7 per cent today.

Nevertheless, they say the nature of work and skills required will evolve. Citing their own research (across all sectors), Barnard and Carter suggest that 70 per cent of all new graduates will enter jobs which have been radically affected by automation whilst 40 per cent of jobs were at high risk of automation and 50 per cent of Aussie workers will need to be able to use, configure or build digital systems over the next two to three years.

For employers, this raises challenges in upskilling their workforce as well as overhauling their branding and recruitment practices.

Speaking on the latter point, Nicole Cook, managing director, Australia and New Zealand at People Scout, said digitalisation was impacting strategies in several areas.

First, managers need to look beyond traditional practices of simply recruiting from their own network – a channel she says is extremely limited in an online environment. Those who rely upon this, she says, will confront growing competition for the people they want with alternative employers who use digital technology to access those same people.

Communication strategies with the workforce, as well, must move away from a ‘scripted’ approach and adopt a less formal tone which incorporates greater levels of collaboration.

A further phenomenon about which employers need to be aware, Cooke says, is the growing ability of digitally enabled workers to more accurately understand their monetary worth. Workers, she says, are increasingly conducting their own research and demanding out-of-cycle pay increases. Where such people are too valuable to lose, employers need to be prepared to respond to this.

Indeed, she says, workers are increasingly viewing their employers as both ‘suppliers’ and ‘parents’. They are suppliers, Cook says, in that workers are increasingly asking what they are going to derive from working there and how employers will make their work more interesting, with many prepared to go elsewhere where answers are not to their liking. Once their loyalty has been won over, however, Cook says staff expect their employers to be more like ‘parents’ in terms of ensuring that work provided is interesting and that their well-being is looked after.

A further trend is a movement away from ‘jobs’ to ‘skills’. Under this phenomenon, workers are not so much committed to a singular form of employment but rather to applying their skills wherever they may be in demand. Aided by search engines, employers are able to define the skills they need and to have Google or other search engines serve up options for candidates with that skill set.

When attracting candidates, first impressions count. When considering a role with your organisation, Cook says seven in 10 candidates will look first at your company’s home page. Where this is not mobile friendly, 65 per cent will move on instantaneously – 40 per cent of those ruling that employer out on the basis of the company not being sufficiently modern for them.

It is also important to engage with potential candidates through a variety of social media forms. Whereas LinkedIn is the clear channel winner for older workers, other channels such as Instagram and Tumblr are becoming popular with the younger generation.

Also, with around half of all workers now posting their own private content online and having on average around 280 friends on social media, the importance of a firm’s own workers as advocates is critical. Provided their sentiments toward you are positive, employers can easily turn their own staff into powerful brand promoters.

Finally, there is the recruitment process itself. Whereas traditional processes involve multiple interviews, much of the screening process today can be automated whilst online tools such as video game interviews create a stronger sense of engagement among candidates. Thanks to this, Cook said, the need for face to face contact has diminished.

Beyond recruitment, there are challenges not just for organisations in upgrading the digital skill sets of their own staff but more broadly for industry and the economy as a whole to ensure the nation is developing sufficient quantities of people with the skill sets required. In this area, Australian Industry Group NSW director Mark Goodsell says industry can no longer sit back and simply rely upon tertiary institutions to churn out sufficient numbers of people with the right skills. Instead, he said, industry must engage with the education sector to ensure that tertiary education is equipping graduates with the skills they need in the real world.

On a side point, Goodsell takes issue with what he describes as misconceptions about the viability of Australia’s industrial sector in the digital environment. Whilst there are negative perceptions about the long-term viability of manufacturing in Australia, he said Ai Group’s Performance of Manufacturing Index had shown that the industry has been growing for most of the past two years (though ABS data shows a long-term trend decline in manufacturing employment). As for arguments about cost, he says countries such as Germany have higher expenses compared with Australia yet enjoy a strong manufacturing industry.

So what jobs will come and go? And how will the work life of engineers evolve?

Speaking on the sidelines of the aforementioned conference, Barnard and Carter say change will happen across several areas.

First, Carter says, conventional job titles may disappear as people increasingly collaborate not just within their own organisation but with people from outside the organisation in ‘pods’ of innovation according to the nature of the project upon which they are working. Largely speaking, she said, people will not be limited to the same topics and tasks but will be involved in an evolving nature of work.

Another area of change surrounds the location of work performed. Taking the example of a rail engineer, Carter says they might spend less time on site and more time behind a desk whilst they continue to utilise their rail expertise but perform increasing volumes of work from remote locations (potentially at home or on vacation).

Even now, Barnard said, there are cases where engineers are able to monitor track performance in real-time from behind a desk. Taking 360-degree photos of the train, for example, can determine whether or not the driver’s step is slightly off and needs replacement. The system can alert the engineer who is sitting back at the office.

More broadly, work environments themselves will change. Instead of being wedded to a singular employer, Barnard says many will have multiple ‘employers’ and might not work the entire week for one client but rather several days for multiple companies or clients.

Indeed, 20 years from now, Barnard says traditional ‘jobs’ might not exist, with engineers instead looking Instead for projects online and bidding for which best matches their skills in a freelance type of arrangement.

In terms of roles which will come and go, Carter cautions that much speculation in this area is pure conjecture but adds that roles which are likely to disappear are those which can be easily automated – typically those of a manual or transactional nature.

By contrast, one skill which will be needed is the ability to understand and interpret data.

In addition, it was likely that a growing number of engineers might come from backgrounds other than science or mathematics. Whilst the design of machinery and artificial intelligence might be a significant area of opportunity (and that involves understanding science and maths), many others in the traditional engineering space may not need to design the Ai or machinery but instead to simply use it in some way. In Siemens’ own case, those coming into its apprenticeship program include beauticians and bricklayers.

Technology will change Australia’s engineering workforce.

Those who embrace this will not only survive but will thrive.