If you’d like to see the future, visit the Henn-na restaurant near Nagasaki in Japan. Inside, a robot chef makes pancakes, while another makes cocktails or doughnuts. A robot host goes to guest tables with a reminder when their hour-long buffet is up. The restaurant has 30 robots and seven humans to serve 100 seats.
The robotic workers are not just a gimmick to draw tourists, but part of a government-funded experiment to understand which kitchen and food processes can be automated and which are better done by humans. Much of the impetus for the project comes from chronic labor shortages and high costs of workers in Japan. While the robotic restaurant workers are still experimental, robots that can help care for the sick and elderly are already mainstream in the country. The Human Support Robot, from Toyota, can fetch and carry medication, water, and small objects for people who find it difficult to do so.
The Shrinking Workforce
What’s happening in Japan provides a preview of what will happen in America and much of the developed world. The need for robots is being driven by a shrinking labor force. Two trends coming together are creating the conditions for labor shortages. The baby boomers are retiring at the same time as younger people are delaying entry into the workforce, mainly because they study longer. In America, the Census Bureau estimates that population growth rate will slow to 0.4 percent in the next decade, down from the present 0.7 percent. The number of people over 65 will jump from the current 50 million to 73 million by 2030.
While the absolute size of the workforce will increase by 11 million, the proportion will shrink from the current 62 percent to about 59 percent. Shortages of labor can be compensated by increases in productivity but that too has slowed, now averaging just 1.4 percent annually, well below the average of 3.4 percent over the last 60 years.
Given the scarcity of labor, low productivity growth and consequent rising labor costs companies have little choice but to invest in automation. AI is a big factor here, but the effects of AI on jobs are more to redefine them than to replace humans completely. Robots, by contrast, are being designed to do all the work done by a human today in many jobs.
The “Cobots” Are Coming
Robots are nothing new. Industrial robots have been in use for decades. But these are large, expensive machines used only in factories. Get too close and they can kill you. Much of the impact they had on jobs has already occurred. What we’ll see now are cobots — collaborative robots that can work closely with humans. A major study by Bain and Co. predicts that emerging technologies, including the development of humanoid service robots, will significantly affect the service sector, eliminating 20 percent — 25 percent of current jobs — about 30 million – by the end of the 2020s.
What’s kept cobots and humanoid robots from becoming commonplace has been their lack of dexterity and cost. But that is changing rapidly. The Asimo robot from Honda can pick up a bottle, unscrew the lid, and pour the contents into a paper cup. Declining costs mean that within a few years robots will be cheaper than human workers, especially since they can work almost 24/7, and consequently will be deployed in jobs such as kitchens, construction sites, hospitals, nursing homes, law enforcement, and for delivery. They’ll even serve as co-pilots on planes.
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The Challenge for Recruiters
This brave new world is not some distant fantasy. The technologies and products built on them are well beyond the prototype stage and many are already being commercialized. The Bain study estimates that the disruption in the labor market will be felt in the service sector within the next decade. As a result, the immediate challenge for recruiters will be attracting and retaining workers, especially highly skilled ones. Given the speed at which the disruption is likely to occur, there will not be enough time for displaced workers to retrain and migrate toward higher-skilled jobs to alleviate the shortfall.
The bigger challenge will be for recruiters to find candidates for jobs that are completely new or have radically changed. Few schools and universities have programs that will provide all the skills needed for workers to succeed in newly created jobs. No program exists today that teaches students how to manage a team where half the members are robots of one kind or another. What assessment can predict if a candidate will be able to handle working in such environments? Recruiting itself will need to adapt to survive the impact of AI technologies, taking on a bigger role in helping new hires succeed. The time to start thinking about that is now.