The topic ‘Future of Work’ has become a mainstream talking point over the last 5-7 years, principally driven by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential impact on the workforce in the not too distant future.
So, what should companies in the industrial gas space (and its ecosystem) be thinking about and planning for with regards to this topic? Let’s take a deeper dive and find out.
Let’s start with a definition of the phrase the ‘Future of work’. Simplistically, it is taking a look at jobs lost, gained and transformed as a result of automation technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). However, the issue can be (and is) much more complex and interconnected, with areas such as how/where future work will get done (in office/remote/ virtual), who will be doing the work (contingent/permanent), what skills will be needed to stay current (education/ training level), and what happens to those left behind, just to name a few. For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on the job-specific parts of the topic and its implications for the industry.
Some lessons from history
It is clear we are now in the fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry
4.0). Like the first, the second and the third, the current revolution can glean some lessons and insights from its predecessors as it proceeds forward.
In every case, previous industrial revolutions have had both positive and negative impacts on society. Some of the positives included greater labor productivity, higher wages and quality of life for many workers, the rise of new job roles, and many others resulting in more affordable consumer products. However, on the flip side, society also experienced over-crowded industrial towns, environmental pollution, often bad working conditions, as well as others.
Most studies have typically started with taking a look at the current global capabilities of automation technology, then forecast the percentage of jobs that can be partially/totally replaced through automation, and then add back estimates of newly created jobs (that didn’t exist previously) due to automation. Different studies will take closer looks by industry segments, job families, specific countries, demographic group or all of the above. A good example is a study done by McKinsey’s Global Institute, which has been tracking this space for some time. Some of its findings for 2030 include:
- 50% of work activities are technically automatable (using current technology)
- 6/10 occupations have >30% of their jobs ‘automatable’
- 15% of work will potentially be displaced as a result of automation
- 8-9% of workforce will be new roles.
PwC also published a study titled Workforce of the Future – Competing Forces Shaping 2030, which shared some additional insights, including:
- 21-38% of jobs are at risk of automation in the most developed countries
- The speed of these changes is dependent upon several factors including continued technology improvement, the role of government incentives, public sentiment and corporate drivers
- A global employee survey shared that 74% of employees are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain to remain employable.
A much shorter term view (2018-2022) came from the World Economic Forum’s survey of global senior executives last year, giving a perspective of how fast things may be changing. Some of its key takeaways included:
- Emerging job roles (like Data Analysts, Software/Applications Developers, and E-commerce Specialists) will grow from 16% to 27% of jobs
- Another cluster of job roles (such as Data Entry, Accounting/Payroll Clerks) will decline from 31% to 21%, nearly offsetting the gains in emerging roles.
- While overall job losses are predicted to be offset by job gains, there will be a significant shift in the quality, location, format and permanency of new roles
- Expect growth in job roles that leverage distinctively ‘human’ skills
- Also expect growth in new specialist roles related to understanding and leveraging the latest emerging technologies.
The key takeaways are that automation of job roles will continue for the foreseeable future, all job roles across all industries will be affected, and the resulting workforce will be very different. Our industry is not immune to any of these automation trends. In fact, if one takes a closer look at some of the actions of the global and large regional players, they will see that the journey has already begun. Here’s a few examples:
• Distribution and logistics
–The Tier One players have been using advanced analytics for some time to optimize both bulk and packaged logistics activities. Air Products shared it had partnered with a third party analytics company since 2010 and upgraded its Optimizer with the company in 2015. Linde (prior to its merger with Praxair) communicated that it had partnered with Paragon to optimize scheduling activities at packaged gas facilities around the world.
• Remote Operating Centers(ROCs)
– All Tier One players and some regional players have implemented ROCs to monitor, optimize and remotely control ASUs, HYCO plants and pipeline networks for a country or regional geography. Air Liquide recently started up a ROC in Southeast Asia that leverages predictive analytics and digital technologies to optimize operations across the region.
• Cylinder plant Automation
–Linde AGA inaugurated the world’s largest fully automated filling plant for industrial gases in Finland in 2017. The facility’s staffing is completely different, with fewer staff handling cylinders and more staff focused on keeping the automation running optimally.
In all cases, companies are leveraging Industry 4.0 technologies, changing
job roles, redeploying staff and yielding greater levels of productivity.
What should companies be doing?
If you are a senior executive or independent business owner/leader, and you are not sure where to start, here are a few recommendations:
1. Refresh strategy
– Clearly identify desired ‘customer centric’ business outcomes and the associated challenges that are preventing you from achieving them…be realistic. Then identify ‘digital enablers/ solutions’ as well as ‘people changes’ necessary to address those challenges. It is likely that members of your executive team (or their direct reports) are aware of solutions that address the asset management, distribution and logistics, innovation and commercial challenges that many companies are facing. If internal ideas are not sufficient, utilize an external trusted advisor to assist. Also, personally own the automation debate – it’s too important an issue to leave to IT (or HR) to champion. And finally, don’t wait! The impact to your part of the industrial gas space is not 5-10 years away, it’s already in motion.
2. Change management
– Develop a comprehensive plan that engages employees early, communicates progress along the way, and shows them how their jobs will change. We tend to focus our communications more on the customer and vendor change management tasks rather than employees for some reason. But for projects to be successful, companies need to fully engage/involve employees in the transformation, especially if their jobs are changing, may/will require new skills or may go away entirely. A recent CNBC article discussed this and confirmed a longstanding assertion that over two-thirds of digitally-based transformations fail for one overwhelming reason – failure to effectively communicate goals, strategy, purpose and outlook with employees.
3. Start small, think BIG
– A similar approach to many project transformations, but what makes
this different are the ‘people’ aspects. Yes, you start piloting the technology with a group of customers, secure your quick wins (successes) that help build momentum, and then start the process of scaling to the rest of the customer base. However, in parallel, there is a set of activities related to the process of scaling the transformation, but more focused on designing the future state of the organization and how it will get there. There are many variables including staffing approach (up-skilling, new hires, redundancies), speed of transition, and local government/union incentives and restrictions. The more time spent here increases overall project success.
4. Sustainability plan
– Most companies focus their sustainability attention on the transition from the current to the future solution architecture, standards/policies, security and other IT aspects that we are very proficient at. However, it also includes building a sustainable organization – an organization that doesn’t crater when one key person departs or gets sick for an extended period of time. Take into account regular up-skilling/ cross training of team members inclusive of vendors/partners.
The ‘Future of Work’ is a big issue and opportunity. The companies that look
at it as an opportunity to help develop a sustainable competitive advantage, will gain ground amongst their competitors. Those that are late adopters will likely be left behind in certain markets. So, which company are you – viewing the Future of Work as an opportunity or an issue? Ultimately, it will be your actions in the short-term that determine the answer…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Art Anderson is Managing Principal for AH Anderson Consulting, LLC. He has more than 30 years of industrial gas business and consulting experience, most of which was spent at Air Products where he held leadership roles in sales, marketing, product management and regional P&L management for the full portfolio of offerings. He currently provides strategic advisory and hands-on support to companies in the Industrial gas and specialty chemicals industries looking to improve their competitive position, lower operating costs, improve productivity and optimize the customer experience. www.ahandersonconsulting.com