Workforce automation brings to mind robotic arms assembling vehicles in Detroit, saving money for automakers by replacing humans who used to do those jobs. But these days automation isn’t restricted to manufacturing—and it can actually be an agent of job growth.
Yes, automation initially resulted in losses of specific types of jobs. But increased efficiency has also allowed auto manufacturers to produce more vehicles per employee—and to deliver a better final product. Customer satisfaction with the quality of new vehicles is at its highest level ever, according to the J.D. Power 2017 U.S. Initial Quality Study.
Higher quality and greater efficiency work together to lower prices and increase demand, which translates into U.S. auto and auto parts manufacturers needing a larger workforce. In fact, motor vehicles and parts manufacturing accounted for an estimated increase of 256,000 jobs between June 2009 and July 2014—accounting for 6 percent of the nation’s growth in jobs, even though the auto industry only accounts for 2 percent of total employment, according to a 2015 study of the industry by the Economic Policy Institute.
Service sector automation
Here in the digital age, the auto industry isn’t the only sector benefiting from automation.
Airline travel is another less visible, but more tangible, experience that has been improved by workforce automation. As a SkyMiles member with Delta, I experience these benefits often.
Delta has removed friction from nearly all my direct interactions with them, from researching flights through deplaning the aircraft at my final destination. And now Delta.com has become my travel portal. All of my flight preferences are stored there, which makes purchasing a flight to Chicago as easy as ordering a book from Amazon. My membership information, flight preferences (aisle seat please), payment details, passport validation and TSA Precheck status are all automatically accessible at the right customer touch points with Delta.
When I call to speak with a representative, my phone number is immediately matched up to my SkyMiles account. Kiosks in the airport call up my itinerary by the swipe of a credit card. The boarding pass in the Delta iOS app gets me through the Precheck line while updating me on any gate changes. Departures on cancelled flights automatically get rebooked (admittedly not always with my preferred option), and sometimes I receive a happy email that my seat has been upgraded.
Delta uses technology to empower me to remain in control of an experience that is known to leave travelers feeling helpless. By seeing—and participating in—the process of managing my flight, I am less reliant on salespeople, customer service teams and gate agents to assist me with routine tasks. This does not mean that Delta has eliminated these roles. More likely, employees are spending time on tasks such as passenger safety, solving complicated customer problems and boarding planes more efficiently.
Since 2012, Delta has increased its full-time equivalent employees 14 percent, to nearly 84,000 in 2016. If the goal of Delta’s automation effort was workforce reduction, I believe the outcome would be different. It’s more than likely that FTEs did not have to increase this dramatically. But then, the airline’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) might not have increased steadily each year since 2011 as well. Coincidence?
Workforce automation—when done well—can lead to product improvement, which fuels customer satisfaction, company growth and, ultimately, an increased workforce. This should give us knowledge workers some comfort as Machine Learning, Big Data and Automation Technologies/Platforms further transform our future.