Amazon’s $700 million workforce retraining program will serve as a test case for meeting the human capital requirements of the automated workplace.
The impact of technology on jobs has long been a subject of research and debate. But recent advancements in automation, robotics, AI and other areas are bringing the future of work into focus. Both workers and employers are under pressure to adapt. Amazon already makes extensive use of automation. Its workforce retraining program, announced on July 11, acknowledges the need for employees who can help optimize it. Internal talent development is a pragmatic option, given America’s low unemployment and talent shortages.
“When automation comes in, it changes the nature of work, but there are still pieces of work that will be done by people,” said Ardine Williams, Vice President of People Operations for Amazon’s Worldwide Operations Human Resources. “You have the opportunity to upskill that population so they can, for example, work with the robots.”
Amazon’s workforce retraining program will apply across all levels of the company, and is geared to training employees for more high-tech tasks. About 100,000 – a third of its U.S. workforce – are expected to participate by 2025. “The scale and pace of the changes in the workforce are unprecedented,” said Susan Lund, an economist at the McKinsey Global Institute. “They can’t hire off the street everyone they need. They have no choice but to retrain their own workers.”
The automated workplace is clearly creating the need for different skill sets; whether this will lead to less tedious jobs requiring more technical skill, or to mass unemployment, remains an open question. According to The New York Times, most economists and technologists believe that for the next few years, technology will mainly change jobs rather than destroy them. Many go so far as to say there is not enough automation, pointing to a slow rise in productivity.
Amazon offers evidence that in order to increase productivity, companies are investing more in talent development as well as technology. Walmart and AT&T also announced training programs in recent years. Making the most out of automation technology demands new approaches to both talent development and recruitment. Williams said Amazon had more than 20,000 open positions in the U.S. The need for talent was one reason the company decided to expand beyond its longtime home in Seattle, selecting Northern Virginia for its second headquarters in November.
The rise of automation technology, in all of its forms, including AI, will have a major impact on the human resources profession. This is especially true of decisions makers such as the Chief Human Resource Officer. A recent Boyden Executive Survey found that 94% of global executives believe technology and AI will alter the HR function. Nearly 40% expect drastic changes to people management.