Jobs and the Future of Work

Can automation pull us through the global labour shortage?

Automation can create new opportunities for the labour force.

Can automation fill the labour gaps? Image: Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Blake Moret
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Rockwell Automation
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Jobs and Skills

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Developed and developing economies are dealing with labour shortages.
  • Adopting automation speeds up the manufacturing process and stretches scarce talent.
  • World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, technologies, such as automation, will create at least 12 million more jobs than they eliminate.

The world is facing a worker shortage. It may be hard to believe as the United Nations announces that the global population tops out at 8 billion people, but it is a growing problem across mature and developing economies. This shortage spans industries and every level of technological development and has serious implications for the global economy.

In developed economies, such as the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Japan, Australia, United Kingdom and France, the generational bulge of Baby Boomers is ageing out of the workforce and moving into retirement. Smaller succeeding generations mean that there are fewer people available to fill these newly vacant roles. Stereotypes about what manufacturing work is like, a mismatch of skills needed versus skills possessed and increasing pressure for young adults to pursue college degrees in lieu of entering the workforce, all contribute to the lack of workers in critical jobs.


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For years, this problem was often addressed by offshoring manufacturing to lower-cost countries. But now even manufacturing powerhouses, such as China, India, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, along with Argentina, Colombia, and Turkey, are experiencing worker shortages and a discrepancy of skills that threaten a variety of industries. In Thailand, 500,000 more migrant workers from neighbouring countries are needed to fill roles in food processing, construction and agriculture. Poland also faces pressure as the nearby war has kept Ukrainian migrants from working in Polish factories. Around the globe, declining birthrates ensure that this shortage will remain a persistent issue.

Automation can amplify the workforce

The numbers are not in our favour without changing our approach. As we look towards the future of manufacturing, the best solution, for many reasons, is to empower and upskill the available labour force to amplify their work. The winning hand is a highly trained, engaged workforce working in concert with cutting-edge technology and automation.

Automation not only speeds up the manufacturing process; it also stretches scarce talent. Going forward across industries, automation, the industrial internet of things (IIoT), virtual and augmented reality (AR), and machines equipped with artificial intelligence effectively give workers superpowers. These advancements help create more efficient processes, improve safety, shorten training time and relieve workforce pressures.

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Automation can make the workforce more inclusive

Basic automation can also enable machines to carry out heavy lifting and other physically challenging tasks, making manufacturing jobs more inclusive and realistic for a wider ability group. It also improves safety by keeping humans out of hazardous environments, such as chemical or steel manufacturing, and reduces the risk of repetitive injuries and accidents.

With AR technologies, training can be done the moment it is needed, reducing the learning curve to get workers up to speed and allowing for the right training at the right time, to be able to address and fix issues that surface. If something breaks and an expert technician from across the country or even from another part of the world is required to fix the problem, the delays and travel dollars add up. Leveraging AR and secure remote access, an expert can effectively 'teleport' onto the factory floor to guide an on-site worker through the process of solving the problem. This sole expert can work across multiple factories, all without leaving their main job site or, potentially, the comfort of their own home. This technology also allows 24/7 operations, with skilled operators handing off remote supervision duties to colleagues across time zones.

Automation can create more jobs than it replaces

The worries that have surfaced about automation replacing workers or increasing wage inequality are well-intentioned but unfounded. Automation has been shown to create as many jobs as it replaces and wage stagnation and inequality are driven by a variety of factors and cannot be blamed on automation alone. It is important to recognize that automation, along with other innovative technologies, makes manufacturing more attractive to workers. These jobs are family-sustaining and have an upward path via upskilling – in addition to being safer, less repetitive and more inclusive by reducing or eliminating strength requirements for different roles.

There are, however, some barriers to the widespread adoption of automation, in particular for the developing world. The digital divide, for example, will clearly demarcate companies taking advantage of the efficiency, cost savings and workforce benefits of these automation technologies and those that can’t. Regions and countries that do not upgrade and distribute their internet access will be left behind. But this potential for economic gaps is not a reason to fear automation. Rather, it should refocus our efforts on investing in building critical infrastructure and educational opportunities to grow economies, allowing enterprises to take advantage of the latest automation technologies.


World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence and automation, will create at least 12 million more jobs than they eliminate, a sign that in the long run, increasing the sophistication of technology and automation across industries will be a net positive for society. There have been four major changes in how we work – from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculture to the industrial revolution to the information age. Not one of these major transitions has increased unemployment. On the contrary, the innovations that drive these new technologies will drive the demand for labour. As we move into this next age – the informed industrial age – there will again be a shift in the types of jobs needed.

Henry Ford couldn’t have conceived of the need for a software engineer any more than an 18th-century farmer could have conceived of a diesel mechanic. Jobs of the future will not look like jobs of the past and that is OK. Trusting in the superpowers created by automation will drive innovation and efficiency, resulting in more opportunities for the workforce of tomorrow.

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