Author: Extensiv Aug 03, 2023 6 Min READ

Automation Isn’t Everything: The Importance of a Human Workforce

6 Min READ
Automation Isn’t Everything: The Importance of a Human Workforce


It’s a viral marketing image: As crowds of people pass by on a busy city street, a building under construction is wrapped with a bold message: “Hey Chat GPT, finish this building…”

The response was unmissable, highlighted in a bold black line just below: “Your skills are irreplaceable...”

The billboard is the work of Impact, a Belgium-based staffing and recruiting company that responded to the publicity saying, “AI can do a lot. But AI can’t finish this building on the Keyserlei in Antwerp. AI can't fix a leak or install a heating system neither. Crafts(wo)men are here to stay, and they deserve to be recognized. Their skills are simply irreplaceable.”

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With brilliant marketing, the company opened the door to advance discussions about a big issue keeping workers awake at night: Will technology and artificial intelligence (AI) put us out of work?

The fear is palpable. Highly-publicized reports tout headlines like:

But is this our reality? Is AI the fire-breathing dragon that will burn down careers and put humans out of work? Or if used together with the current workforce, is it a tool to increase efficiency, make workplaces safer, and increase employee satisfaction and retention?

The Rise of Tech and Worker Woes

The rise of technology and the fear of robots overtaking the workforce isn’t a new concept for those working in automotives, manufacturing, warehousing, transportation, and logistics. In fact, it’s easy to trace these fears all the way back to the early 1900s when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to his workforce. Many worried it would put skilled laborers out of work, when in fact, it expanded working opportunities for those previously unskilled to join the car-building workforce.

Some reports say this concern goes back even further, with one tracing it to as early as 1850 when the increased use of sewing machines created fear the machines would put skilled women laborers out of work.

And while those fears eventually subsided as workforce skills shifted, the rapid adoption of smart technologies and intelligent computer systems that sparked Industry 4.0, also called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, reignited trepidation about job losses again.

In recent months, machine learning, AI, and tools like Chat GPT are further fanning flames of discontent.

The Lack of Skilled Workers

Technology innovation is rapidly outpacing the humans trying to keep up. As technology changes the way workplaces function, many industries are struggling to find skilled employees to keep the wheels turning.

A report from Deloitte says by 2030, there may be more than 2 million unfilled jobs in manufacturing. The news is similar for logistics, where the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates job growth will likely increase 28% between 2021-2031, a rate much higher than the average in other industries. Transportation is experiencing similar shortfalls, with an estimated shortage of truck drivers expected to hit 160,000 by 2030.

It's an issue echoing across the entire supply chain.

According to the 2023 MHI Annual Industry Report, “The Responsible Supply Chain: Transparency, Sustainability, and the Case for Business,” nearly 60% of respondents said that hiring and retaining qualified workers and the talent shortage are top supply chain challenges.

“Attracting and retaining diverse talent presents both a challenge and solution to bridging the talent gap,” Paul Wellener, vice chairman and U.S. industrial products and construction leader at Deloitte, said. “To attract a new generation of workers, the industry should work together to change the perception of work in manufacturing and expand and diversify its talent pipeline.”

So, how as an industry do we get there? How can we put technology to work for us instead of against us?

Bridging the Human-Tech Gap

The Deloitte supply chain report says that 74% of supply chain leaders plan to increase supply chain technology and innovation investments. A majority of them, 90%, will spend more than $1 million in new tech, and nearly 40% say that investment will likely exceed $10 million.

More technologies means finding more people with the right skills to use them.

To keep pace, industry leaders must proactively think about how to use these new tools to bridge existing gaps between technology and automation and the lack of skilled workers. Quite simply, the ideal solution, especially for manufacturing, logistics, and warehousing, will be a mixture of both—humans and automation working together.

The Deloitte report further identified these key areas for technology investments across the supply chain:

If you’re a third-party logistics (3PL) or fourth-party logistics (4PL) company managing these services for customers, or you’re a retailer or ecommerce business handling order fulfillment, inventory management and shipping on your own, you might be wondering just how deep your technology stack will have to be and how many more people you have to hire to manage it all?

Would you breathe a sigh of relief knowing that with the right human-technology combination you could do it with just one platform using your existing workforce?

Human-Centric Automation

As the technology and labor shortage gap widens over the next several years, companies will need to focus on increasing efficiencies and retaining their existing workforces, not flat-out replacing them with automation, or investing loads of money into trying to recruit new workers in an already challenging and increasingly competitive environment.

Extensiv’s 2023 State of the Ecommerce Fulfillment Industry Report calls this approach “human-centric automation,” meaning the most successful companies will capitalize on the symbiotic relationships between humans and automation.

Like all new important business initiatives, executive leadership and key stakeholders will play a pivotal role in building a culture that embraces human-centric automation. While it starts at the top, to ensure success, senior executives should empower their middle managers—the people who engage with the workforce daily—with resources to first soothe workers' concerns about being elbowed out by technologies and the benefits automation brings to the business.

Build automation strategies with input from cross-functional teams. Often, when companies talk about automation, they turn to their IT teams. While that’s a crucial step to ensure security and compatibility with existing systems and governance compliance, this process is more about hardware, software, and connectivity. It’s about solving challenges and improving efficiencies for the people who are on the ground managing tasks and responsibilities for your business. As such, the best way to select the right automation solution for your operations is to go to the source. Ask the people who do the work daily about the biggest challenges they face. Seek input on how to resolve those issues. Build cross-functional teams that can take this feedback from across the company and apply it in making suggestions about your technology focus and investments.

Be transparent. Nothing fuels fear more than the unknown. As your leadership team develops strategies about new technologies and automation, share this information with your employees. Don’t approach it too broadly. Instead, relate the strategy to the day-to-day work your employees do. Explain why the company wants to invest in automation and how it will directly impact employees’ specific tasks, highlighting how it will make them more productive and ease some of the strain of existing manual processes. The more transparent you are about your plans, and the more employees understand the benefits, the more likely they will embrace changes.

Here's an example you can share with your employees to help them understand why a culture of human-centric automation will improve their job efficiencies and satisfaction, while ensuring long-term success of your company:

Manual, repetitive tasks can lead to burnout and job dissatisfaction. On top of that, if employees grow tired or complacent about having to do the same task over and over again, there are increased chances of errors. The company can use automation to tackle these manual processes so employees can use their skills to focus on more important tasks.

Analyze and measure current employee productivity and job satisfaction and set goals for improvement. Drawing on research about your automation solutions, for example, software for warehouse management or automated order-picking, what assumptions can you make about how it will increase productivity and employee satisfaction? Establish short- and long-term key performance indicators (KPIs) to help you routinely evaluate these areas after solution implementation. This will give you insight early-on about if the solution is delivering what it promised or if you need to make adjustments to get the most out of your investments.

Ensure employees receive proper training. It’s not uncommon for companies to drop a lot of money into a new program or technology that’s supposed to improve work processes, only to find out later that some people find it too hard to use, others don’t see the benefits and go back to their old ways of doing things, or the solution isn’t being used correctly for its assigned functions. This often happens because employees did not receive the proper training and education out of the gate to make their jobs easier, not harder. You can overcome this common mistake by ensuring all employees who use new technologies have proper training and can access support tools whenever they have issues or concerns. Consider doing routine training updates and always stay on top of any potential changes or upgrades and how they may impact your end users.

It’s a culture, not a project. Getting your company to embrace human-centric automation isn’t a one-and-done project. It’s not something you can implement and walk away from once everything is up and running. Your goal is to build this into your company’s culture by making it part of day-to-day job responsibilities. Continuously monitor the solution’s performance. Create a channel for open and honest feedback from your employees about how it's working and what could make it better. Listen and be flexible. Because you’ll make a number of assumptions before you purchase an automation tool, you’ll need real-time data to evaluate those assumptions against after implementation. Be willing to adapt your strategies as you evaluate usage and don’t hesitate to change direction or alter plans as your business changes.

Driving the Future With Automation

As manufacturing and logistics markets continue to grow, they will be increasingly competitive. Companies will edge out their competition by adopting innovative technologies that improve efficiencies and decrease costs. But those that will likely see the most success are the ones who adopt a human-centric automation culture, soothe employee fears, improve employee satisfaction and retainment, and embrace the many benefits automation can bring to business.

By combining the strengths of employees and automation, companies can reap the benefits of increased accuracy and enhanced flexibility, all leading to happier employees, more satisfied customers, and ultimately more growth and scalability for your operations—without negatively impacting your workforce or your sustainability.

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