In an old folk song, John Henry, an African-American laborer of extraordinary strength (and apparently, work ethic), pits his skills against a machine. Henry, who was known as a "steel driving" man—meaning a worker who hammered a steel drill into rock to bore holes for explosives—was convinced he could do the job faster and better than the newly introduced steam drill, and he accepted a challenge to prove it. Legend has it that he won the contest only to die at the moment of victory when his heart gave out from exertion.
It's a classic American man-versus-machine tale that resonated with the era's working people, who feared that the coming of machines would cost them their jobs.
Fast-forward to the modern day, and we still hear echoes of the old John Henry story—only now, the new-fangled machines aren't steam drills, but robotics and automated equipment. The fears are the same: Companies will bring in machines to replace humans, sending people to the unemployment line.
As often noted before in this space, that's not entirely true. Robotics and automation may indeed replace some of the more repetitive jobs now done by people. But that doesn't mean those people will be out on the street. Most of them will learn new skills, find new jobs, and be relieved of the mundane, sometimes backbreaking, tasks that give manual labor a bad name.
At least that's what we think. But what do American workers think? Are they haunted by the specter of losing their job to a bot? Are they dead-set against the idea of working with a robotic "colleague"?
It seems not.
A new research report by Sykes, a company that provides customer-engagement services and solutions, concludes that American workers are far less concerned about the impact of workplace automation than we've been led to believe. In October 2019, the company surveyed 1,500 employed adult Americans on the subject. The survey participants were asked 17 questions, ranging from which industries they think will be most impacted by automation in five years' time to whether they'd be willing to take directions from a software program, instead of a human boss.
The results made it clear that reports of widespread "robo-phobia" in the workplace are greatly exaggerated. In fact, the study showed that for most of the respondents, the words "automation technologies" and "robots" had positive connotations. When asked what they thought of when those terms came up in workplace conversations, less than a third of respondents said they thought of equipment or technologies that could take their jobs. A far larger share—67.1%—indicated that they simply thought of tools, machines, or software that could help them do their jobs better.
It was much the same story when it came to respondents' actual experience with job loss. When asked if they had ever lost a job to automated technologies, just 4.9% answered in the affirmative, while 95.1% said they had not. Furthermore, of that 95.1%, almost two-thirds indicated it was not something they were concerned about.
Not only are they not concerned about the introduction of robotics to their workplace, but many of the respondents say they would welcome the assistance. When asked if a job in which humans and automation technologies worked together would interest them, 72.5% indicated it would—largely because they felt they could be more effective in their jobs if some tasks were automated for them.
They may soon have a chance to test that theory. According to a 2018 Forrester report, the robotic process automation market will reach $2.9 billion in 2021, which indicates that we're on the cusp of a robotic revolution where logistics operations are concerned.
Despite all the warnings we've heard about pushback from a resentful workforce, it appears American workers don't feel threatened by the prospect of workplace automation at all.
Bring on the robots!