Business process automation (BPA) is an unstoppable process in today’s society, which relies on technology so heavily. But could it lead to human workers being totally replaced by robots?

I’ve never felt threatened by a computer program. I have had my backside handed to me by Scrabble apps, raid bosses have killed my avatar and Microsoft Word tends to be better at spelling. But I doubt any software today could write a good novel or heartfelt poetry. For the time being, my intended field is secure.

However, job-specific, Artificial Intelligence programming used in business process automation has increased the complexity of tasks machines can perform.

Amazon’s Business Process Automation and Displaced Employees

Business process automation and the transition to an AI workforce in Amazon warehouses is a way to explore what the future holds for displaced workers. Yet, with a reduction in jobs that require less education, judgement or technical skill, how can education keep up, or will a lack of opportunity leave many behind?

From too short bathroom breaks to unreasonable quotas or mandatory overtime, a quick search for Amazon warehouse workers brings up a dozen articles, videos and testimonials about poor working conditions. Payscale lists one year, as the average time most employees stay with the company, among the lowest of the Fortune 500 companies.

With so many protesting qualities of its work environment, the reason Amazon has job seekers lining up at new warehouse events could only be for better pay or lack of opportunity elsewhere. What often limits pay and work opportunity is training, skill and experience.

Since Amazon’s 2012’s purchase of Kiva (now Amazon Robotics) jobs requiring less training, skill and experience have been the first target for replacement with robotics. (Forbes, 2016).  The same year as its robotics investment, Amazon developed a program called Career Choice, to prepare displaced workers for new opportunities.

Amazon’s Career Choice

From the Outset, Career Choice was praised for offering training in fields that did not benefit the company. Some examples include healthcare and airplane maintenance. But in August 2016, Amazon introduced its first airplane, Amazon One. And According to CNBC News, in March 2018, Amazon entered the healthcare industry.

It would be unusual for Amazon not to have long-term plans and corporate self-interest. Still, it does not change the benefit. In 2017, Amazon celebrated the milestone of ten-thousand participants in the Career Choice Program. These employees are given no-strings-attached education in a field they choose.

This means that yes, they can end up with a new job at Amazon. At the same time, there’s no reason why they can’t find competitive careers elsewhere.

Business Wire reports that new programs offered in 2017 “include robotics, engineering and technology, computer science, photovoltaic (PV) design principles and practices learning.”

Perhaps these newer offerings are a projection of where the company is heading in the next 5-6 years. Though replicating Career Choice might be challenging for smaller companies, it’s still a leading example in corporate responsibility.

What It Means

In 2018, Amazon warehouse jobs are what more than a half-million workers rely on worldwide (Ghosh, Business Insider). Considering the amount of human labor necessary to run each warehouse has decreased due to robotics, is ten-thousand plus, participants in the Career Choice program enough to offset the replaced labor?

On the other hand, while it is helpful for PR, is it the employer’s responsibility to train workers when their jobs are replaced with technology? After all, the job my great-grandmother performed in a textile factory is now performed by machines. One of the duties my grandfather had at King Kullen is being replaced with self-checkout.

Fewer large printing presses were being financed in the digital age and my father started working with cogeneration, renewable energy. My father was able to expand his business’s focus using his education and experience.

But for the loss of jobs that require less training, displaced employees may be left without relevant skills. Now, more than ever, it’s is important for the government and business policy to emulate Career Choice. This is because College and costly education are becoming tied with job-relevant skills.

Business Process Automation and College Education

The reason for choosing college education shifted in 1967, according to the Washington Post, from intellectual curiosity to getting a job (Selingo, 2015).

What was different when my father was ten years old? My father originally wanted to be a carpenter. But as he became an adult, he decided on accounting, as there was a better market for work. He was able to juggle baseball, school and work at a catering house to pay for college. Yet, this was still a transitionary period when an entry-level serving job could pay enough of a bachelor’s degree for him to afford it.

From this point, the choice of college expense transformed from if you have the money to you need to spend money to make more money. The increase in student debt over the past 15 years is a result of this transformation. Students are spending money on education, even when they don’t have it.

With this expanding motivation for College, there now are more higher education programs with a career-focused approach.

Even with adjustments in higher education, The Washington Posts cites surveys where “higher education has come under attack for its failure to make students job-ready.” (2015, Selingo)

Though a talent shortage is unlikely, the “training gap is real.” However, this skepticism is correct on a basic level.

Is the experience at King Kullen (recognized by Smithsonian Institution as the first supermarket) something, even in the ’90s, we would not find “anywhere else?” Is the training gap insurmountable working for Macy’s or Sears clothing stores? Is the technology sold at Best Buy radically different from any other retailer?

Yet, the most interchangeable companies and jobs are the areas with an intense business process automation where machines along with AI are replacing human labor. And the training necessary for the jobs left becomes ever greater.

In 2012, the same time Amazon was heavily investing in task-specific AI, Best Buy acknowledged its profit decreasing due changes in the retail industry. Forbes mentioned “the Amazon Effect,” as responsible for these changes (Trainer).

However, Best Buy’s response, the “Renew Blue Strategy” focused on customer experience as its competitive edge. While unprofitable stores were shut down or reorganized, which reduced the number of jobs, their approach was mostly centered around providing work for human beings.

Yet, how long will this business process automation strategy last?

In 2018, an online tutorial or video is not quite as helpful as holding the device and being guided by another person. However, prices tend to be higher for electronics at Best Buy due to the overhead, store employees and the Geek Squad to provide these services. It might not be long before interactive, VR instruction programs make these human services unprofitable.

Years from now, you may swipe your ID and walk into an automated testing booth for new electronics. Within you have tutorials, promotional videos and offers to buy new products.

For the sake of business process automation, machines are being programmed to take on increasingly more difficult jobs to the point where the term Artificial Intelligence is more appropriate.

Humans are capable of learning new things, socializing and more generalized interaction with the environment. At the same time, AI has combined the consistency of machines with enough knowledge in a specific area to generalize within that field.

There can be a shift in business process automation where human labor is still required without the need for reduction. Yet, the paywalls are increasing for many of the jobs that require training in the US.

We shouldn’t fear artificial intelligence or robotics as long as we have the opportunity to utilize the capacity our minds have that surpass what AI can do. In order to do this, employers and governments need to create or maintain paths to allow workers to be marketable before their skills become obsolete.

Yiannis Alexiou, B.Sc., M.Sc.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Theresa Roach

    Wow! Great article! I didn’t know this was happening on a larger scale and that we are feeling it’s ramifications. It was very hard to help direct my children in careers, soviety is changing so rapidly & no one seems to have the answers. Thank you for this article to raise people’s consciousness.

    1. Avatar
      Daniel Cuzzo

      Thanks Theresa, I’m glad you found it compelling! I remember speaking to Mike Roach about jobs and he recommended learning a lot of skills in case job market changes make one or another obsolete. That was good advice, and factored into my writing.

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