Robots

In CorporateSpeak, there are no “job cuts.” Instead, firings are blandly referred to as “employment adjustments.”

Now, though, corporate wordsmiths will need a whole new thesaurus of euphemisms, for masses of job cuts are coming for employees in the higher echelons of the corporate structure, such highly paid humans as financial analysts, lawyers, engineers, managers and doctors. Don’t look now, but an unanticipated result of the ongoing pandemic is that it has given cover for CEOs to speed up the adoption of highly advanced RPAs (Robotic Process Automation) to replace employees once assumed to be immune from displacement. As analyst Craig Le Clair told a New York Times reporter, “With RPA you can build a bot that costs $10,000 a year and take out two to four humans.”

Prior to the COVID crisis, many top executives feared a public backlash if they pushed automation too far too fast. But, ironically, the economic collapse caused by the pandemic has so discombobulated the workplace and diverted public attention that corporate bosses have been emboldened to rush ahead. While the nationwide shutdown of offices and furloughing of employees has caused misery for millions, one happy purveyor of RPA systems notes that it has “massively raised awareness among executives about the variety of work that no longer requires human involvement.” He cheerfully declares: “We think any business process can be automated,” advising corporate bosses that half to two-thirds of all the tasks being done at their companies can be done by machines.

More than just an incremental extension of a long, slow automation process, this is a Big Bang. It’s currently ripping through the workforce at warp speed and most of America’s vulnerable employees have no idea of what’s coming. In a survey of corporate executives last year, nearly 80 percent of them had already put some forms of RPA in place, with an additional 16 percent planning to do so within three years.

That’s 96 percent of corporate employers! McKinsey, the world’s biggest corporate strategy consultant, had calculated in 2019 that the thinking robotics would displace 37 million U.S. workers by 2030. Now, seeing the current corporate stampede to impose RPAs on U.S. workplaces, McKinsey has upped its projection to 45 million job losses in this decade.

Conventional corporate wisdom blithely preaches that all new technologies create more jobs than they kill, but even those Pollyanna-ish preachers are now conceding that this robotic automation of white-collar jobs is being imposed so suddenly, widely and stealthily that losses will crush any gains. 

“We haven’t hit the exponential point of this stuff yet,” warns an alarmed analyst. “And when we do, it’s going to be dramatic.” 

To contact Jim Hightower, go to hightower.com.