Are the robots coming to take our jobs? Advances in any tech that aids in automation always come with questions about the jobs they take versus the jobs they create, but the World Economic Forum warned in a report published on Monday that advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and other modern technologies are currently likely to lead to a net loss of 5.1 million jobs worldwide by the year 2020.
"Without urgent and targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with futureproof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality—and businesses with a shrinking consumer base," the report states in its introduction.
The workforce number estimate, which is based on surveys and data provided by 371 companies' chief HR officers worldwide (whose combined workforces include over 13 million employees in 15 "major, developed, and emerging economies"), includes numbers for different industries' gains and losses. The biggest loser, according to the WEF, will be in the office and administrative job sector to the tune of 4.76 million jobs—due to "a perfect storm of technological trends that have the potential to make many of [the job roles] redundant," the report states. Other fields with major expected losses include manufacturing and production (1.61 million) and construction and extraction (497,000).
Meanwhile, the report's authors believe that employment demand in the engineering and architecture sectors will see a big boost, as specialists will be needed "to create and manage advanced and automated production systems." Job numbers in the "computer and mathematical sector" will actually benefit from seemingly negative trends like geopolitical volatility and privacy concerns—meaning that bigger, out-of-touch companies will hire more data-crunching specialists so that they can adapt to modern disruptions.
On the technological side, the WEF's survey points to increased reliance on the cloud as the biggest driver of hiring change, as opposed to robotics—though respondents also believed that robots' impact on hiring trends won't really begin until 2018. On the demographic side, the survey's respondents cite flexible work environments as the most impactful trend, thanks to more advanced mobile technology access across the globe. This trend in particular is a major reason the report expects such a dive in office and administrative hiring.
The report doesn't go into a lot of detail about exactly how advances in robotics will impact the workforce, nor does it clarify what its frequent use of the term "Internet of things" actually means in terms of products and the industries they affect. Anybody looking for more analysis on those subjects may be interested in Alec Ross's late-2015 book The Industries of the Future, which offers some interesting analysis on the ways robots may soon newly interact with typically human labor. In particular, Ross' book predicts that Japan's rapidly aging population and lack of skilled medical labor will soon combine in a perfect storm of robots entering the geriatric care sector.
However, the WEF does offer a warning about hiring trends not favoring women, due to the fact that the sectors likely to have the largest job losses are the same ones that currently hire the most women. "If our respondents’ expectations come to pass, [we may see] a possible reversal of some of the gains made in workplace gender parity over the past decade," the report states.