Jul 19, 2018
Forbes: TechStyle Fashion Group COO Anton Von Rueden on The Future of Work
The automation of physical labor will not stop. The digital encoding of human cognition and decision-making is arriving parallel to it. Smart robots, sensors, digital agents and other technologies have brought a new vocabulary to human resources: Companies now speak of “reskilling” and “upskilling” — the need to ensure that employees are empowered, not replaced, by the disruptive new technologies that are rewriting the planet.
“Savvy organizations are keeping their people,” said Mike DiClaudio, principal in People & Change Advisory at KPMG LLP. “They’re reskilling them ahead of demand, at a price that makes sense for the organization, at a pace that makes sense for their customers. They’re not waiting for the market to disrupt them. They’re the disruptors.”
Some job functions will wane or vanish, as jobs have throughout history. KPMG LLP’s 2017 report “Clarity on Digital Labor” forecasts that technology will perform the job equivalent of about 120 million employees by 2025. In a survey of 1,896 technology experts by Pew Research Center, “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs,” just under half of those polled envisioned significant job losses from automation. But 52 percent believed more new jobs will be created than old ones lost. The question is: What kinds of new jobs will there be?
“Skilled jobs are going to be in more demand, and unskilled jobs will change,” said Cliff Justice, principal in Innovation & Enterprise Solutions at KPMG LLP. “Driving a car may not be a major source of employment 10 years from now. Fast food cooks will likely get augmented or substantially replaced. But there will be new things that it doesn’t make sense to automate, and the unskilled labor will move into those categories, just as it moved from agriculture to factories to the service economy.”
Real-life examples that illustrate the evolution of nontechnical jobs abound. TechStyle Fashion Group was born online in 2010 with a mission to build “online-native” fashion brands. It sells its own brands, including JustFab (the original company name, now an online store for accessories), Fabletics (athletic wear), ShoeDazzle and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie. TechStyle built its own FashionOS software platform, so it employs plenty of coders and software engineers. Its fashion designers make creative decisions aided by data analytics. It also has its own warehouses and customer-support operations and 24 brick-and-mortar stores. Employees in these traditionally less-skilled areas have taken on redefined roles working with technology that the company created.
“The worry many people have is that jobs are going away. I feel like they’re just changing. The focus can be more on the customer experience,” said Anton von Rueden, chief operating officer at TechStyle.
In Fabletics stores, for example, retail associates carry touchscreen devices (off-the-shelf iPod Touch units running the company’s software). An associate can bring up the account of a VIP customer, make recommendations, open a virtual shopping cart and handle the entire interaction.
“You feel really empowered with this thing, because you can walk up to any customer in the store and solve every single one of their problems,” von Rueden said. “You can do exchanges, returns, go online to order items not in the store. There aren’t people who just do replenishment on the racks. There aren’t people who just do checkout. Basically every store associate can do every process — and they do.”
TechStyle’s warehouse workers use similar devices that optimize their workflow as they walk a cart through the aisles, picking items to fulfill customer orders. “It’s changing your work experience, not automating it away,” von Rueden said.
Jobs will keep changing in ways that aren’t easy to forecast. “I couldn’t have told you in 2005 how many mobile app developers we’d have today,” said Justice.
“No one had a social media manager 15 years ago,” added Alexandra Levit, author of the forthcoming book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future. “That’s a job that every company has multiple people doing now. It’s going to be that times 100. There are categories that we don’t even know that are going to rise up.”
Communications giant AT&T has invested in its workforce with its Future Ready reskilling program. It’s a massive effort, costing $200 million to $250 million a year, to identify where every job function is headed and provide workers with the training they need to prepare for roles that have a future.
“The true skill set a lot of organizations look for — and our CEO research has borne this out — is the ability to continually learn and adopt new skills,” DiClaudio said. “When you can do that, you can always add value to a company. You’re not trying to do the same thing you did for 15 years and the skill set for that is out of date. If you’re a lifelong learner, this is a prime opportunity for you to be successful.”
Boxed, an online bulk-products retailer, built its own robotics unit, creating equipment that optimizes its warehouse operations. It will always keep skilled technical workers employed. The company also famously decided to keep and retrain 75 warehouse employees rather than scrap them, when those warehouse robots could have eliminated many positions. The have learned to work with and maintain robotic equipment, and some have moved in to customer support or other roles.
The company uses a lot of data — and smart people — to continually refine its product mix. “That is an absolute marriage of art and science,” said Boxed CEO Chieh Huang. “Science will tell me, when I open up our system, how much La Croix has sold last month, where the POs are, how much I think I need to order. But science will never be able to tell me to a 100 percent degree what the next La Croix is. Or what’s the next fashion trend. I don’t think that’s going to go away.”