Most everyone knows that automation is transforming manufacturing and other related industries, resulting in fewer and different types of jobs.
Now, there is a new frontier for the technology: white-collar jobs.
Automation is transforming office worker tasks such as data entry, as well as handling customer requests through call centers, or generating financial documents. These often repetitive, time-consuming tasks free employees to take on more work that requires a human to accomplish – changing the way people work in an office environment.
“On the one hand, folks with less skill are losing opportunities,” said H. Robert Gustafson Jr., managing director of Enterprise Systems Center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. “On the other hand, you are supplanting routine and boring tasks.”
From marketing to financial services, virtually every sector of white-collar office work can include some form of automation, such as:
< In marketing, algorithms predict what types of content will appeal to a reader.
< Many people already use automated techniques for accessing financial data.
< Call centers, auditing, accounting, data entry, data collection, and document processing.
The trend will accelerate with the rapid pace of advancements in technology as automation takes over more routine white-collar functions. And jobs that remain could require different skill sets, experts said.
“It’s good and it’s bad,” Gustafson Jr. said. “… Hopefully, the net result is an increase in the quality of life.
“We should try to be looking at, how do we take advantage of the opportunities that are presented?”
CHANGING THE WAY WE WORK
Automation naturally changes the way people work and raises concerns over jobs lost to machines.
Gustafson’s research center focuses on systems engineering and leadership development for students through experiential learning. Automation has already allowed his center to benefit through advanced analytics. As an example, technology has advanced to the point where computing and software power can collect more and more data from social media and analyze that data so that researchers at the center can help companies develop predictive analytical models to improve their business.
“We are all seeing these transformations occur now,” Gustafson said.
Automation brings unexpected new jobs that could go along with it, he added. Regardless of how much automation occurs, companies still need people to download software and maintain the database, he said.
PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS BE NEEDED
While computers can tell what will happen and what has happened, framing that data into a strategy is something humans do, according to one local business owner.
“The art of creating a strategy for analyzing that data is still part of the human ‘magic sauce,’” said Kashif Raza, president and co-founder of 3LINX, a global provider of order fulfillment and third party logistics services based in Upper Macungie Township.
The power of convenience plays a significant role in fueling automation.
“The more you can bring on a mobile experience, the better it is,” Raza said. “More people want to take care of transactions from their phone.”
Automation has found its way into positions that involve graphic design, web development and data analytics at his company, he said.
“We see a world where people can be efficient and you do more with less,” Raza said.
He sees automation as a positive thing.
“If you are able to adapt and are willing to adapt, they [workers] will be fine,” Raza said. “Don’t fear automation. Embrace it and develop a skill set.”
ACCOUNTING FOR AUTOMATION
The accounting field has seen technological disruption with the advent of tax software that allows people to file their taxes online. In the future, automation will eliminate most routine compliance work, said Ed Monborne, CEO of RKL, an accounting and consulting firm with an office in Spring Township.
Automation has created fewer entry-level jobs, according to Monborne.
It eliminates manual and handwork in the accounting profession, he said. Now many of those jobs are automated, so what people gain are speed and efficiency. It has not eliminated many jobs, according to Monborne, but it has automated some and increased productivity.
“It will never displace white-collar jobs 100 percent because at some point in time, someone’s going to need to interpret the information,” he said.
ANALYSIS BY A HUMAN
Monborne envisions a not-too-distant future where people can talk to a box to get their taxes done, or financial planning services completed and get the information downloaded and sent to them.
However, a person still needs to analyze the data and ensure it is accurate. Therefore, different types of jobs in the accounting profession are going to be in demand.
“The pace of technology is changing so quickly right now,” he said. “What we are hearing in the accounting field is that students aren’t learning relevant skills.”
Information technology and data analytic specialists are going to be more in demand, which will require different skill sets, Monborne said.
According to the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants, firms in the accounting field should see a lot of change in the next three to five years, and the speed of technology will increase as younger people enter the workforce.
“You have to be cognizant of how it’s going to affect your core business,” Monborne said.
“The percentage of accountants being hired might drop, but instead we’re hiring information technology specialists, data specialists, more on the IT side and fewer accountants, a different skill set and shift of what people need to operate in our environment … moving toward engineers and IT people and data scientists.”
Automation has made inroads in the marketing industry, where the technology continues to advance, reducing repetitive, mindless tasks a person normally would do.
The industry has many platforms that advertise themselves as automated platforms, according to Adam Smartschan, vice president of innovation and strategy for Altitude Marketing in Emmaus. His firm works with nearly a dozen automated marketing platforms, he said.
These platforms do the repetitive tasks that humans normally do, such as manual data transmission.
“In terms of their impact, the way we look at it, we don’t believe that the human being can ever be replaced in marketing,” Smartschan said. “I have a hard time believing that any knowledge workers’ jobs would be in jeopardy. However, automation can eliminate processes that people don’t need to do.”
MORE TIME TO THINK, CREATE
Smartschan described these processes as non-value-added work, such as copying and pasting, having a client complete an online form, or having an employee manually input data. Automation now can do many of these tasks, freeing the employee to be strategic and creative and analyze data, according to Smartschan.
One of the benefits of automated platforms is they can automatically transmit data and provide customized content for the customer through email.
“Can a robot create an experience, to get someone to have a good experience?” Smartschan said. “There’s always got to be a person there. The goal ultimately for the marketer is, we want to deliver more personalized content and there are things, that without some level of automation, wouldn’t be possible.”
If a company has two staffers, automation could help them be as effective as four staffers, Smartschan said.
Automated marketing platforms can be big and complex and require people to manage and administer them, and run the machine, he said.
“We are able to focus on the knowledge work; robots are really good at data,” Smartschan said.