Business Profs Find Work that Delivers High Value Is Less Likely to Be Automated

Beth Humberd and Scott Latham pose with a robot at the NERVE Center Image by Ed Brennen
Manning School of Business faculty members Beth Humberd and Scott Latham found that value is a key factor in determining whether robots will replace jobs.

By Ed Brennen

From self-ordering kiosks at fast-food restaurants to mail-order prescriptions online, automation continues to seep into our everyday lives. And with it has come an avalanche of research and reporting on how artificial intelligence, robots and the Internet of Things are disrupting industries and taking people’s jobs.

In surveying this shifting landscape, Manning School of Business faculty members Scott Latham and Beth Humberd noticed something important was being overlooked: how the value delivered by workers — either to customers or within their organizations — can help predict whether their professions will survive in the future.

“Everyone is talking about the changing nature of work, but it seemed most of the guidance and discussion was for organizations in terms of what they’ll gain in efficiency and cost reduction,” says Humberd, an assistant professor of management. “We realized that there’s too much of a monolithic story out there for individual workers, who were just hearing, ‘Watch out, the robots are coming. Your job is danger.’”

To help people figure out if they’re safe from the robots or if they should be pivoting to a new line of work, Latham and Humberd have co-authored a research article, “Four Ways Jobs Will Respond to Automation,” which was published this fall in one of the world’s leading scholarly journals, the MIT Sloan Management Review.

“It’s not just low-skilled workers who are going to be displaced and professional workers who are fine. A plumber might outlast a doctor.” -Asst. Prof. of Management Beth Humberd

By evaluating 50 professions (everything from accountant to plumber to toll-taker) according to the type of value delivered and the skills required, they created a framework that can help workers assess the threat level posed by automation. The professions ended up falling into one of four quadrants, or “paths of evolution”: displaced (the most in danger), disrupted, deconstructed or durable (the safest).

Real estate agents, for instance, would fall into the “disrupted” category because their skills are becoming standardized by websites and apps, but they still provide value through the more nuanced work of advising clients. A pharmacist, meanwhile, is considered “displaced” (high threat to value and skill), while a livery driver is “deconstructed” (high threat to value, low threat to skill) and a physician’s assistant is “durable” (low threat to value and skill).

“The idea of value allowed us to show that there’s different ways that jobs are going to evolve, and it may not be in the way you think,” says Humberd, who notes that education level and wages are not necessarily strong predictors of job evolution. “It’s not just low-skilled workers who are going to be displaced and professional workers who are fine. A plumber might outlast a doctor.”

A nursing student works with a faculty member Image by Imelda Joson
Physician's assistant is considered a "durable" profession, according to the research.

That analysis has helped the article gain considerable traction on social media, where it has been retweeted by everyone from the McKinsey Global Institute to a high school principal in Pennsylvania, with the comment “We need to be thinking about this for our students.”

“The response has been incredible,” says Latham, an associate professor of management. “We thought it would be well-received, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how widely it’s been disseminated.”

The idea for the research sprang from Latham’s former role as the university’s Vice Provost for Workforce Development, which gave him an up-close look at how businesses were confronting automation.

“My whole career has looked at how technology disrupts industries and organizations,” says Latham, who found the perfect collaborator in Humberd, whose research centers on how that disruption impacts individual workers.

And their work is not done.

“We’ve found that there’s some interesting stuff that people are not talking much about, at that intersection of broader technological disruption and the ways in which individuals identify with their work that we want to follow up on,” Humberd says.

“There’s too much hysteria when we talk about the future of work. There needs to be more grounded research,” adds Latham, who says that while the evolution of automation is unavoidable, no one really knows how it will unfold.

“It could come to a point where the automated stations you see at McDonald’s, in five years people could say, ‘This stinks. I want a person.’”