Generally, boards and executives make strategic plans at least three to five years out. With automation making its way into businesses, corporate leaders will need to start planning more along the lines of five to 10 years in the future.

As processes in business become increasingly automated, senior leaders will need to assess their own skill gaps in the area of artificial intelligence. Corporate leaders will also need to educate themselves on how automation will change their workforce needs. They’ll have to consider their needs for retraining workers and how to converge jobs for humans with robotic tasks. Companies may also have to partner with high schools, colleges and universities to get young people trained and ready for the workforce.

Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will make such major changes in businesses that it will also become necessary to make changes in the board and the C-suite, to some degree. Essentially, corporate leaders will need to plan today for the operations, workforce and leadership of the future because of the potential impact of automation, which will soon permeate business operations.

How Will Automation Change the Future Workforce?

Robots will play a significant role in nearly every industry in the coming years. To gain a sense of the potential impact of automation, PwC did a study of 29 countries and it showed that about 20% of jobs would be at high risk of automation by the late 2020s, and they expect it to increase to 30% by the mid-2030s.

Imagine your life as a factory worker where you’re used to working on a line with other workers. One day, you go into work and find that a half dozen of your co-workers have been sent to another area to be retrained and their tasks have been taken over by robots. You’d have to adjust your work skills to work in tandem with the robots. It would also be somewhat of a culture shock, even if you knew the changes were coming. The changes might create worry over the next robot taking over your job.

Automation can take on various forms. Industrial robots are already being used in some capacity for factory lines, assembly lines, and for picking and packing orders. Automation will also take the form of service using artificial intelligence.

The changes due to automation won’t happen overnight. Corporate leaders will need to make plans now for changes in their workforce. They’ll have to decide how many jobs will be taken over by automation successfully and how that will impact their current number of employees. Leaders will also have to make decisions about which of their employees can be upskilled or reskilled, as well as which ones will no longer have a place within the company.

Reskilling the Future Workforce 

If one word is to become the icon of automation, it would probably be reskilling. This is the time for organizations to set up a comprehensive system for continuous learning through education and hands-on skills training. To be fully prepared, they’ll need to set it up on a larger scale than with any other transformation. Each company’s needs will vary by industry and other factors, but companies can form a basic plan from the front-runners that are already doing it.

The first phase of reskilling requires reviewing the current labor force to assess where skills line up with the new operational plan. In evaluating current talent, one must determine the following:

  • Which workers need a few new skills and technical training to perform the same or a similar role to their current job.
  • Which workers need more substantial reskilling to move into new jobs within the company.
  • Which workers will not be qualified to work in the new system.

For example, many Walmart retailers have self-checkout registers with inventory scanners. The store can replace 12 cashiers with one employee who helps customers at the self-checkout with items that won’t scan, scanning alcohol and payment problems. Extra staff is trained to improve customer service, or they could be transferred to jobs that process online orders, delivery orders and in-store pickup orders. Stockers may also be reskilled to maintain and supervise robots that load and unload freight. Jobs may also be created to analyze purchasing and ordering data and develop digital marketing strategies.

It will be a job in itself to take an employee skills inventory to assess how to move people around internally and decide who needs reskills or upskills training. Entities with multiple locations will have more options. Preparation should include helping employees to mentally prepare for different jobs than they had.

Next, companies will need to decide on the best way to deliver training. Training options may include classroom training, online courses, experiential training or some combination of them. Creative learning environments such as bootcamps, multimedia, virtual reality, games, online modules and webinars, and team learning may reduce some of the mental and emotional anxiety surrounding the changes. Technology can also be used to provide flexibility in the learning environment, assessing job fit and tracking completion.

Finally, companies will need to set up a system and location for the training. Some companies are considering adding a Chief Skills and Learning Officer (CSLO). This position could soon be a staple of the C-suite just as CTOs have been in recent years. The role of the CSLO is to retrain, reskill, upskill and redeploy workers. Program developments could lead to established talent hubs where employees could define an individual learning path.

As with many training programs, there’s always a concern that employees will take the training and leave the company. However, employees are apt to be more loyal to companies that have their own training programs and offer tuition assistance for degrees and advanced training that they can use within the company for a chance at upward mobility. Many companies are partnering with educational providers and nonprofits to help with training needs. Companies are also creating dedicated physical spaces in their facilities for reskilling current employees and training new hires.

There is much work ahead of companies to prepare for the invasion of automation. CEOs must be realistic about the time that it will take to reskill workers and reduce losing valuable employees along the way.