Almost all jobs to be affected by automation in coming decade: McKinsey

Great news for burger flippers! You probably make too little money to be replaced by a robot.

However, many other job types will see automation replacing the bulk of the required tasks, according to a new report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

“While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail,” the report issued this week said.

McKinsey broke down U.S. labor tasks into three categories: those highly susceptible to automation; those less-susceptible and those least susceptible.

Among the most vulnerable are tasks involving physical activities or operation of machinery in predictable environments, work which makes up almost 20 percent of U.S. labor activity. Risk of automation for those tasks is 78 percent, according to McKinsey.

“Since predictable physical activities figure prominently in sectors such as manufacturing, food service and accommodations, and retailing, these are the most susceptible to automation based on technical considerations alone,” the report said.

However, considerations outside the technical could change the equation in some sectors and for some activities, McKinsey said. For certain jobs in food service, “current wage rates are among the lowest in the United States, reflecting both the skills required and the size of the available labor supply . . . Since restaurant employees who cook earn an average of about $10 an hour, a business case based solely on reducing labor costs may be unconvincing.”

In retail, 53 percent of activities are automatable, including managing inventory, logistics, and packing merchandise, along with maintaining sales records and other data-collection work. But retail-sector bean counters beware: McKinsey said 86 percent of the work done by bookkeepers, accountants and auditing clerks could be done by machines instead.

In the middle rank of automation potential are many data-collection and data-processing tasks, with more than 60 percent of the work potentially subject to automation, the report said. “And it’s not just entry-level workers or low-wage clerks who collect and process data; people whose annual incomes exceed $200,000 spend some 31 percent of their time doing those things,” the report said.

About half of the time spent by people working in finance and insurance involves collecting and crunching data, so automation could take over many of the tasks performed by stock traders, investment bankers, insurance salespeople, underwriters, securities sales agents and bank tellers, according to McKinsey.

Some job activities, such as operating a construction crane, giving medical care as a first responder, picking up litter, and making hotel-room beds require more flexibility than technology can currently deliver, and are only 25 percent automatable, the report said. But that number could rise to 67 percent.

“As automation advances in capability, jobs involving higher skills will probably be automated at increasingly high rates,” McKinsey said.

Among the hardest activities to automate at present are in jobs requiring management and development of people, with only 9 percent at risk of automation, and in jobs involving applying expertise to decision-making, planning or creative work, with 18 percent at risk, McKinsey said.

Also, many tasks that require human interaction, such as in education and health care, may be shielded from automation, the report said.

“Overall, healthcare has a technical potential for automation of about 36 percent, but the potential is lower for health professionals whose daily activities require expertise and direct contact with patients,” the report said. “For example, we estimate that less than 30 percent of a registered nurse’s activities could be automated, based on technical considerations alone. For dental hygienists, that proportion drops to 13 percent.”

Nursing assistants, who spend about two-thirds of their time gathering health information, are more vulnerable to having tasks automated, the report said.

While digital technology is transforming education via online learning, only 27 percent of activities in the sector could be automated now, according to McKinsey.

“The essence of teaching is deep expertise and complex interactions with other people,” the report said.

Should one hurdle be cleared, automation will rush far deeper into the workplace, McKinsey said.

“One of the biggest technological breakthroughs would come if machines were to develop an understanding of natural language on par with median human performance – that is, if computers gained the ability to recognize the concepts in everyday communication between people.”


Photo: Harvey Tran assembles a robotic arm that will be a component of the da Vinci Surgical System at the headquarters and manufacturing plant of Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale in August 2012. (Gary Reyes/ Staff)


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