AI & Services: How to Prepare for the Impact on Your Workforce

A man cooking and the text: AI & Services: How to Prepare for the Impact on Your Workforce

Idea in brief:
A new report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program reveals automation could impact jobs in the food and beverage, hospitality and retail service sectors by as much as 91%. Here’s how to prepare your workforce for AI’s potential effects.

In the third and final article in our special series on artificial intelligence and the workforce, we take one last look at the January 2019 report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the data showing AI’s potential to replace millions of jobs by 2030.

The Brookings report puts a quarter of America’s jobs at elevated risk of being replaced by automation, another 36% at medium and the rest at low risk. It also lays out the implications of AI for the U.S. workforce and society in general.

Service industry jobs in the food and beverage, hospitality and retail service sectors face high exposure to automation. Food service, in particular, could experience disruption of 60 to 80%. Here’s why – and how workforce development can help you prepare your team.

But first, the good news – AI’s upside for the service industry

Despite the workforce risks, the McKinsey Global Institute says AI could add significant value for the U.S. service industry by 2030. Travel & tourism will fare best, with value gains as high as 128%, while retail could see gains up to 87%. Food services will enjoy a 74% boost, according to a separate report from Accenture.

AI’s value equation is already evident in the services sector. Machine learning is making fast food not just faster but smarter. Robots track inventory on store shelves. Driverless cars deliver pizza. And cloud-managed, digital room assistants are streamlining guest services and raising the bar on room personalization.

Consider these real-world examples of AI efficiency gains in the service industry:

Using algorithmically driven “decision logic” technology, McDonald’s can upsell drive-through customers based on purchase history, weather patterns or each location’s most popular items. Would you like a latte with that Happy Meal?

At Walmart, robots are tracking inventory and sales – three times faster and with twice the accuracy as humans. And how are employees spending all that extra time? They’re being redeployed to interact with shoppers.

Meanwhile, smart tech is giving hotel guests the connectivity and control they crave. Hilton’s Connected Room lets guests customize room temperature, lighting and even entertainment. Want to keep streaming that show you were watching before you got here? Done.

Mitigate risks with training and development

While the service sector stands to benefit greatly from AI, employers need to consider the jobs impact of automation – and how to mitigate it. The Brookings Report highlights the most vulnerable service industry occupations. Low-wage, routine jobs, not surprisingly, are at greatest risk, with food service at the highest level of risk within the service industry. Yet there’s a lot of variation even within food service. For instance, food prep workers face 91.4% automation potential while the score drops to 31.8% for food service managers.

In retail, cashiers and salespersons both face 46.8% automation potential. And within the hospitality industry, travel agents and concierges top the list, with 73.1% and 65.8% automation potential, respectively.

In a report from The Pew Research Center entitled “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training,” experts agreed education and skills-building programs are essential to meet new demands.

One had this to say about the skills of the future: “Those are the skills a robot cannot master (yet). Leadership, design, human meta communication, critical thinking, motivating, cooperating, innovating…Main teaching goal: We enable you to survive in an ever-changing world with ever-changing skills and not-yet-existing jobs of the future. We make you better than a robot. We let you cooperate with robots. We build your self-trust. We turn you into a decent, polite, social person.”

Retrain and retain high-risk service workers

The consensus from The Pew Research Center report is that emphasizing soft skills and looking for opportunities to upskill employees is the best way forward for the services sector. A report from the National Academies of Sciences backs that up, with the upshot being “the education system will need to adapt to prepare individuals for the changing labor market. At the same time, recent IT advances offer new and potentially more widely accessible ways to access education.”

In a recent article in MIT Technology Review, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University and author of Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, offered this advice to every business affected by automation:

Keep learning: As AI transforms the workplace, Aoun believes education and training will be a crucial element in employee retention and job satisfaction.

Focus on strengths: Creativity, entrepreneurship, teamwork and the ability to appreciate issues from diverse perspectives are common skill sets. Play to them.

Inspire collaboration: Human nature works against robotic integration. Staffers might detach from the robot and hoard their work. Such behavior can actually decrease efficiency – staffers take on too much, robots not enough. Help internal teams learn the nuances of working with robots.

In a similar vein, the Brookings report outlines five strategies for supporting workers’ needs for learning and skills development:

    1. Upskill employees.
    2. Expand accelerated learning and development.
    3. Provide tuition assistance.
    4. Align and expand traditional education.
    5. Foster uniquely human qualities.

According to the report, “Near-future automation potential will be highest for roles that now pay the lowest wages. Likewise, the average automation potential of occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree runs to just 24%, less than half the 55% task exposure faced by roles requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.”

Bottom line: The better-educated the earner, the lower the automation impact. And the better for the future of services all around.

Contact the Workforce Partnerships team at Southern New Hampshire University to learn about our tailored learning solutions.

Betty Egan is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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