The New Surge in Robots

A combination of COVID safety issues and the Great Resignation has convinced firms to automate big time. But companies may be swapping one labor shortage for another.

Last year, many organizations couldn’t fill shifts because so many people were sick with COVID-19. This year, organizations couldn’t fill shifts because of COVID and the Great Resignation.

So it’s not surprising that one shortage or the other has convinced companies to accelerate their digitize even more processes and systems. The latest, Tyson Foods, which recently announced plans to spend $1.3 billion to automate parts of its production lines over the next three years. And the spend on robots and machines just keeps on growing at one multinational after another. Organizations spent about $1.2 billion in 2020 on robotic process automation and likely spent more than $2 billion this year, according to the market research firm Transforma Insights.

Experts, however, say this new wave of digitization could, if organizations aren’t strategic with their workforce planning, end up swapping one labor shortage for another. Companies may not need so many low-skilled workers, but they will need higher-skilled employees to make sure all that automation works effectively. “You need still need humans to program the machines and then repair and maintain them,” says Paul Lambert, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s global Workforce Transformation practice.

Lambert is currently working with two manufacturing clients as they automate their production lines. Each effort will reduce total headcount but will require the organizations to seek out people with skillsets that they are unaccustomed to hiring.

To be sure, digitization efforts like these could be a win-win tradeoff. Many of the jobs being replaced by the latest surge in automation are low-paying, difficult, or both. Automation, if executed effectively, can create more efficient, more-profitable organizations while giving workers higher-paying, more intellectually stimulating jobs.

But companies are going to have to find those people to fill those higher-level roles. Companies with facilities in rural America may face a challenge since many highly skilled talent flocks to bigger cities. “In rural areas it can be difficult to recruit,” says Christian Hasenoehrl, a Korn Ferry a global leader for consumer and industrial accounts who works with Tyson.

Experts say savvy organizations might take a similar path to Amazon. In 2019, the retail giant announced a $700 million program to re-skill 100,000 of its U.S. based employees in areas such as healthcare, machine learning, manufacturing, robotics, and computer science. The goal was to not only help employees qualify for higher-paying jobs but also create a huge group of internal candidates who can take on roles in some of the nation’s—and the company’s—fastest-growing areas.

In Tyson’s case, the new automated production lines won’t employ as many people as they do now (some of those operations require 3,000-5,000 people). But it will need to find a new contingent of machinists. The company created what it calls Upward Academy, which helps educate workers in everything from basic life skills to sophisticated technical skills. This year, the company started a complimentary program, Upward Pathways, which gives employees job skills training and work force certifications at the plants. “Tyson would rather upskill its existing employees rather than hire a completely new workforce, says Hasenoehrl.