NAB's tech-led job cuts shows future challenges of the resume-free robot workforce

Monday, November 6th, 2017 - Resume
by
Ed Husic

It was news that didn’t just send a jolt through hardened market analysts. Last Thursday, NAB told everyone that one in 10 of its employees would be losing their jobs.

Not because of overseas competitors or a slide in its profits, 6000 employees will have their jobs taken by robots. 

NAB hastened to point out that 2000 new, higher-skilled, digitally centred jobs would be created in the meantime, but many of us will be very interested to see the approach the bank takes to retraining and redeploying some of the 6000 affected employees.

From a business standpoint, hard heads will say the logic of NAB’s overall decision is compelling; the efficiency of robotics and artificial intelligence is assured and the investment in them will repay itself quickly.  

Labor's Ed Husic recently secured a Senate inquiry with a wide remit to examine how future changes will affect jobs and wages
Labor’s Ed Husic recently secured a Senate inquiry with a wide remit to examine how future changes will affect jobs and wages

Dean Sewell/Oculi Photos

It’s not like these new robotic employees come with a resume.

Transition

But while it’s clear the type of decisions NAB has made will happen more and more, what is very unclear is the way we will prepare for and manage the transition.  

NAB’s announcement came six months after shadow treasurer Chris Bowen pointed out that automation might affect 40 per cent of jobs in the financial services sector.

This call was based entirely on the analytics work undertaken by Faethm, a Sydney-based research outfit that has churned through data and finely pinpointed the likely impact of automation not just on industries – but on the businesses operating within them.

If the type of decisions made by NAB are going to become more commonplace, where do we head next? 

Well, The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd rightly remarked that “…no company can cut itself to greatness. The sorts of company transformation envisaged require investments in technology and people.” Spot on.

His comments reinforced by KPMG’s national head of banking, Ian Pollari, who urged that government, industry and academic institutions need to work together to ensure Australia fosters new skills sets of higher value.  Not just within the financial services sector – but across our labour market.

Business, unions, the community sense what’s approaching.

Government inertia

Yet, against a growing consensus that recognises we need a seismic reshaping of our approach to skills development – backed up with a durable investment in education – we have a federal government actively cutting funds to schools, vocational education and universities.

Heaped upon this is staggering inertia: the same government fails to act upon its own previously commissioned reports urging change.

While launching CSIRO’s report entitled “Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce”, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash proclaimed we need “to invest strategically in skills and training and encourage people to apply the skills they already have to different types of work. More than ever, education and training are important for succeeding in the labour market.”

The government’s combination of cuts and inertia will hurt us. Badly.

The federal opposition isn’t sitting still.  While automation presents challenge, we know the nation is better positioned if prepared. 

Taking action

It’s why we created a dedicated portfolio focussing on the future of work. 

It’s why we actively talk about the issue to build community awareness about technological change – and why we broadly consult to help prepare for it.

It’s why we pushed for – and secured – a Senate inquiry with a wide remit to examine how future changes will affect jobs and wages and then spotlight a more inclusive transitional pathway for the nation.

We’re filling a void created by government inaction.

Government won’t have all the answers and can’t do all the work.  

We need joined-up effort, linking business, unions and educational institutions.

Anything less will sell the nation short and be a recipe for rising community angst in the face of more announcements like those made by NAB last week.

Ed Husic is shadow minister for the future of work and the digital economy.

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