Recruiting, Startup HR, Technology

How Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is Poised to Help With the Labor Shortage

With companies around the globe struggling to find staff, could the time be ripe for an explosion in RPA? What kinds of solutions can this technology offer, and what does it mean for workers and employers long term?

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What’s Going On With the Labor Market?

It’s no secret that the labor market, both in the United States and abroad, is out of whack. “The latest labor data from the U.S., for example, shows that more workers are willing to walk away from their jobs or to switch employment,” writes Holly Ellyatt in an article for CNBC. “The most recent U.S. Labor Department’s monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, released last week, showed there were 10.4 million job openings in August whereas the number of people leaving their jobs (the so-called ‘quits rate’) rose to 4.3 million, the highest level seen on records dating back to Dec. 2000.”

The lack of available workers is more prevalent in some sectors than others, and anyone who’s gone out to eat or noticed empty shelves at the grocery store lately can probably guess some of the industries that have been hit the hardest.

“Sectors particularly affected by workers quitting their jobs were accommodation and food services, wholesale trade and state and local government education,” writes Ellyatt. It’s a problem that’s not unique to the U.S. market. In fact, countries around the world are facing the same shortages and for many of the same reasons.

These labor shortages are “exacerbating supply chain disruptions around the globe, with key industries struggling to regain momentum due to a lack of workers or raw materials,” Ellyatt continues. “This disrupts both local and global production and supply networks, hampering economic growth and causing product and service shortages for consumers.”

There are a variety of factors that have contributed to the current situation, including many members of an aging workforce deciding to retire early and a swath of workers reluctant to return to in-person work post-pandemic either due to health and safety concerns or simply because they’ve grown accustomed to being away from the office. RPA may provide a ready-made solution.

What is RPA, and What Does it Do?

RPA refers to a set of technologies, often involving artificial intelligence (AI), that allow computers to perform tasks and processes traditionally carried out by humans. RPA differs from more established computerized processes in the way it learns how to perform its tasks. In more conventional computerized processing, an application might be developed whereby a programmer instructs the application how to perform a task by programming a set of operations into a workflow. This can, and often does, involve integrating programmatically to other systems—i.e., one computer talking to another using computer language.

By contrast, RPA more closely resembles how a human would perform tasks. Consider, for example, the increasing use of RPA in call centers. “Many of the customer requests received by call centres can be supported with RPA technology; common customer queries and solutions can be provided to agents via a dashboard,” writes Bernard Marr. “When an issue gets escalated to human customer service agents, RPA can help consolidate all the information about a customer on a single screen, so the agents have all the information they need from multiple systems to provide exemplary service.”

On its website, Nuummite Consulting describes the key technology and software differences between RPA and traditional automation:

  1. Technology differences. In the past, application programming interfaces (APIs) were used to integrate different systems. RPA takes this to the next level using AI to actually understand and learn from user interactions. 
  2. Software limitations. RPA overcomes restrictions typically found with API interfaces such as limitations in customization options and opportunities.
  3. Turnaround time. The use of bots with RPA allows developers to work with sections and to instruct bots in those sections to do certain things, making the programming far less complex.
  4. Customization. RPA allows for enhanced customization, even allowing subject matter experts (SMEs) to make their own modifications to meet user needs.  

To sum up, RPA leverages the processing power, accuracy, and speed of traditional computer automation but combines it with a human-like approach to learning and workflow in order to supplement and replace the need for human workers in some functions.

What Does RPA Mean for the Future of the Workforce?

Anytime someone mentions the concept of machines, computers, or robots replacing human workers, this understandably piques the anxiety of human workers. Does the growth in popularity of RPA signal the widespread loss of jobs?

There are several lines of thought in response to this question. One is to point out that the U.S. and global economies are currently experiencing a historic labor shortage, and RPA has the potential to perform jobs that human workers don’t seem to want anyway. The second response is, yes, RPA will result in some low-skilled jobs’ switching from human to automated workers, which means some human workers will be out of a job. A third response is an optimistic take on the second: While RPA will eliminate the need for human workers in some low-skilled roles, this is actually a good thing because it frees those workers up to perform more rewarding, higher-level, and worthwhile tasks. Why make minimum wage doing data entry when a computer robot can do that data entry while you analyze the data to make business decisions?

Of course, this last optimistic view of the impact of RPA on the workforce glosses over some important realities. For one, there are fewer higher-level jobs than the types of low-skill, entry-level jobs RPA has the potential to perform. Look at the organizational chart in any business, and you’ll see fewer employees at each level of the hierarchy. This means that not every employee displaced by RPA or similar technologies is likely to be able to get a job at the next level because there simply aren’t that many jobs at that level. Additionally, it’s unlikely that the average data-entry worker can seamlessly move into a role as a data analyst. The data analyst role requires more insight and knowledge and therefore requires more training. In order for workers displaced by RPA to take on higher-level roles within the workforce, they’ll likely need to undergo additional training.

RPA has great potential for streamlining a wide range of functions currently performed by humans, and it can often do so far better than even traditional forms of non-RPA automation. However, fears about the impact on human workers are not entirely without merit. While some displaced workers may find more rewarding work a level or two up the functional hierarchy, they’ll need training to get there, and others may simply be out of a job.

Lin-Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.