Society has accepted that many of the traditional jobs, such as stock picking or call centre assistants, are becoming increasingly automated. Early fears that as the 4th Industrial Revolution took hold, human employment will be lost to the machines or that robots would take over the world were, of course, unfounded.
According to The World Economic Forum, while automation will supplant about 85 million jobs by 2025, the future tech-driven economy will create 97 million new jobs. But while machines currently carry out around 30% of all tasks, by 2025, the balance is expected to dramatically change to a 50-50 combination of humans and machines.
The reality is, work tasks will increasingly require a mix of part human, part machine skills. As the machines are left to do more and more of the tasks people used to do, us humans will need to bolster our interpersonal and analytical skills, as these will become the most valued by employers.
It’s a recurring theme across industries. In field service and maintenance, there has already been a change. Growth in sensor deployment has led to an increase in data analytics and the remote management of devices via IoT networks. This has had a knock-on effect in terms of job roles and skills. Businesses have, as a result, become more equipment focused, building customer knowledge as well as machine performance around automated data.
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Field service and plant-based maintenance teams have had to adapt, and it has been to their advantage that the emphasis within organisations has shifted. Service is no longer seen as a cost to the business. The ability to provide intelligence on products and customers, and in many cases be the front line for businesses, means service is now strategically important.
For many businesses though, this has led to employment issues, especially as the workforce ages. Knowledge loss is an increasingly common problem. According to the Service Council, 70% of service organisations say they would be burdened by the knowledge loss of a retiring workforce in the next five to 10 years, while 50% claim they are currently facing a shortage of resources to adequately meet service demand. Automation is great, but it will only go so far to help.
Interestingly, the TSIA recently found that half of all field services organisations don’t have a formal career path in place for their field service engineers. This, in my view, is a huge point of unnecessary commercial risk. These organisations are not doing enough to prepare younger service techs for a mixed reality future – one where they will have to work more closely with digital technology and machines than any previous generation. It won’t happen by accident.
There is certainly a need for an integral ‘system of record’ that captures accurate data about equipment ‘as maintained’. The need for this type of database, showing how equipment looks right now, enables service technicians to understand the context of what equipment data is telling them. While automation can create alerts to problems or potential issues, the service tech will still need to know how to solve those problems quickly and efficiently.
From reading the data correctly, understanding how to correct issues, source parts and manage customer expectations, the fundamentals are not all that new. But as machines evolve with more in-built automation and data-driven analytics, there is a danger that businesses will over-rely on automation, letting their human diagnostic strengths lapse.
Until recently, technology has been mainly used for automating repetitive or arduous tasks. But AI and machine learning advancements mean the tasks that can be done by machines are much broader in scope than previous generations of technology have made possible.
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As new generations enter the workforce, the most valuable skills will be interpersonal – communication, empathy, conflict management, leadership, listening, collaboration, curiosity and resilience; and cognitive skills – analysis, evaluation, synthesis, judgment, decision-making and creativity. We’re already seeing a strong emphasis on interpersonal skills, higher-order cognitive skills and systems skills in both the US and the UK.
The shelf life of specialised skills and deep product knowledge is decreasing both as technology rapidly advances and as knowledge becomes more accessible on the go. Estimates put the half-life of a professional skill at just five years, meaning that every five years, that skill is about half as valuable as it was before – so after 20 years, any skill will effectively be obsolete.
Workers of the future must have the ability and willingness to learn, unlearn and relearn as technology further evolves the way businesses run. This will be just as important for current workers, who will need to focus on their capacity for adapting and learning new skills required by the workplace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and those new to the workforce.
Humans need to be able to speak the same language as automated machines, but these machines should not block skills development. In service maintenance terms, AI and automation are not and should never be considered a human replacement. If anything, it is opening up the industry and creating a brand-new field of hybrid service opportunities.