Is your job robot-ready?
Robots are making people redundant, and you may be next.
Once a flight of fancy, we are now in an age where workers of all stripes, including professionals and white-collar workers, could be on the receiving end of pink slips thanks to robots.
The debate over robots and artificial intelligence has mostly been confined to advanced economies, but the trend will no doubt have wide implications for emerging economies in Asia as well.
The Nikkei and the Financial Times conducted a joint research project regarding the possible impact of automation in the workplace. Using an interactive calculator developed by the FT that draws on data from the McKinsey Global Institute, the Nikkei Asian Review looked at some jobs that Asia’s workers can expect to lose to robots.
While the automation rate differs, most jobs will in some way be affected by robots. The current robot and artificial intelligence phenomenon will have implications of the same magnitude as when weaving machines replaced English textile workers in the 19th century and when Ford’s Model T forced horses off the streets.
Southeast Asia is a major magnet for industry. With a huge workforce, low wages and accommodating governments, corporations continue to flock there. But the region is shaping up to be a nightmare for workers employed in manufacturing and related fields. Over 80% of the sector’s industrial activities can be automated, spelling disaster for those employed in this area. For now, the situation is stable. Eventually, however, factory assemblers, welders, shoemakers, sewing machine operators and others will see most of their jobs automated using currently available technology.
The International Labor Organization is wary of this, too. It warned in a 2016 report that 137 million workers — or 56 percent of the workforce in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, with those in the garment industry particularly vulnerable. “Preparing the workforce for new ways of working through corporate education and government initiatives are critical for a timely and effective response to automation trends,” the report said.
Asia is a food lover’s paradise. Bangkok is bursting with traditional street restaurants, while in Jakarta, where the middle and wealthy classes are growing, upscale restaurants are opening all over town.
In the near future, tourists could soon be savoring beef satay or Thai curry prepared and served by robots; nearly 70% of activities in the food industry can be automated, according to the calculator. Tasks subject to automation include food preparation, food and beverage serving, and setting of tables and dining areas.
Crucially, cooking is not endangered, but falls under the “sometimes” category, meaning subject to automation in some cases. Hence, in order to avoid being replaced by robots, cooks will have to keep honing their skills and offer food that is difficult to prepare. Singaporean food stalls Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle along with Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, the first street vendors to be recognized in the Michelin guide, are as of now beacons of hope.
From tuk-tuks in Bangkok and the bus system in Jakarta to ride-hailing services in Singapore, Southeast Asia has an abundance of transportation. But jobs in this sector could vanish in the foreseeable future, with nearly 50% of activities considered subject to automation. These include vehicle inspectors, pilots, transport information providers and fare collectors. However, jobs like driving passenger vehicles and operating ships and other watercraft are not considered in imminent danger, falling into the “sometimes” category.
Drivers should take note of recent developments: IT companies and automakers across the world are scrambling to create fully autonomous cars. Ride-hailing services looking to reduce labor costs are experimenting with self-driving cars. Singapore’s Grab was testing autonomous vehicles last year in partnership with the U.S. based startup nuTonomy.
As Karl Iagnemma, CEO and co-founder of nuTonomy, stated: “This exciting new partnership…will ensure that we’re also delivering a high-quality transportation service that consumers trust.”
Asian construction workers, who are in constant demand thanks to the property boom in China and infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, are far from secure. Estimates show that 42.9%, 113 out of 263, of construction activities are subject to automation. Jobs such as marking reference points on construction materials, welding metal components and numerous others could soon be performed by robots. Other jobs, however, like estimating materials requirements and creating construction or installation plans seem fairly safe.
The news is slightly better for extraction workers, such as oil rig workers in Indonesia and mine demolition experts in China: A fairly low 38.3%, 23 out of 60, of extraction activities could be automated.
Taking into account supervisory fields, a total of 42.5% of the activities in the construction and extraction sector could be automated.
This marginally low rate stems from the fact that “physical activities in an unpredictable environment make up a high proportion of the work,” according to McKinsey. “The environment in these examples is not stable and can change in unpredictable ways. Carrying out these activities thus requires a high degree of flexibility, which makes them harder to automate,” the consultancy said.
Despite rapid industrialization in numerous Asian countries, agriculture remains a key component of many economies, making up somewhere between 9-28% of gross domestic product. More importantly, the sector also acts as a valuable source of employment, especially for workers in rural areas.
That only 41% of activities in farming, fishery and forestry can be automated is good news for governments, especially in Southeast Asia. While autonomous methods like satellite-directed rice-planting machines and cultivation machines are being tested, the small-scale nature of Southeast Asian farming makes adopting these methods ineffective. Tasks like harvesting and maintaining inventories are considered irreplaceable by robots.
However, the risk of automation in agriculture differs between countries, according to the ILO. “The share of employment classified as having a high risk of automation in agriculture…ranges from around one-third in Thailand to more than four-fifths in [Vietnam],” it said in the 2016 report. “The wide variance highlights the comparatively more sophisticated nature of Thailand’s agricultural production. In Thailand, low-skill, elementary occupations make up less than 6% of agricultural employment. By contrast, the share is nearly 74% in [Vietnam].”
Asia’s elderly population is projected to reach nearly 923 million by the middle of the century, according to the Asian Development Bank. The region is on track to become one of the oldest in the world. In this context, the health care sector, especially for jobs that require direct interaction with patients, will become hugely important to Asia.
The “human” element that is crucial in this sector means that there is a low potential for automation, with only 25.2% of activities deemed robot-friendly. Key jobs — like assisting patients with daily activities, holding patients to ensure proper positioning or safety, and cleaning patient rooms or patient treatment rooms — are difficult or impractical to automate. “While a robot in theory could carry out some functions of a nurse or a home care help, the human beings on the receiving end of their care may balk at the idea,” McKinsey said.
But the low rate for potential automation should not obscure the need for it. A consequence of rapidly aging societies is that each health care worker must support increasingly more people — hardly an ideal situation for jobs requiring attention to minute details. Japan offers a bleak example: The country is expected to lack 377,000 nursing care staff in fiscal 2025.
McKinsey’s team, using US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, deconstructed 820 occupations into their constituent work activities. There are around 2,000 unique activities. McKinsey then assessed, for each activity, what combination of 18 different performance capabilities were required to do that activity. For ease of navigation, the FT grouped the 820 occupations into 97 job groups, under 23 job categories.
The percentage of replaceable activities is calculated by the NAR using 1) the number of activities under the chosen job categories and 2) the number of activities deemed replaceable by a robot by the calculator.