Robotic fruit pickers cannot yet fill the gap in human shortages ©Getty Images
Robotic fruit pickers cannot yet fill the gap in human shortages ©Getty Images

Is technology driving or easing labour shortages?

20 July 2022

Technology enables firms to pursue sustainability but may also drive up carbon footprints.

Global labour shortages are at record highs. According to Deloitte, job openings in manufacturing are 30% higher than pre-pandemic levels in the UK and have more than doubled in the US. And it isn’t just manufacturing: logistics, agriculture, retail and services have all taken a hit, while supermarkets have struggled to keep shelves stocked due to a shortfall of drivers causing delivery delays.

Political decisions such as Brexit hugely impacted the availability of workers, and the pandemic exacerbated these issues. As companies struggle to fill the gaps, firms are turning to technology to help alleviate the shortages – a factory operated entirely by robots might sound visionary, but new tech could be a viable alternative to the traditional workforce.

How good are automated workers?  

The UK’s horticulture sector took a hit after Brexit, laying the path for start-up Small Robot Company to fill the gap. Its bots identify and use electricity to kill weeds in wheat fields, reducing or eradicating pesticide usage. Though designed for precision weeding rather than job replacements, they have been extremely effective tools during a worker scarcity and are now being rolled out to almost 50 farms for the 2022-2023 growing season. It demonstrates how using tech to tackle one industry problem, such as regenerative agriculture goals, can have wider benefits and implications on supply chains.

In June Amazon announced its “first fully autonomous mobile robot”, which is able to move large carts throughout its warehouses. It has also created a robotic arm that can “quickly select one package out of a pile of packages, lift it, read the label, and precisely place it in a GoCart to send the package on the next step of its journey”.

Amazon has insisted it is not trying to remove human workers from operations, telling Forbes replacing people with machines “is just a fallacy”, but that tech frees up workers for other tasks that cannot currently be done by AI. However, the reality is that fully automated robotic and AI operations sound exciting and are being developed, but most are still in testing phases and certainly not in a position to tackle current staff shortages.

Autonomous trucks, which have often been heralded as the answer to the world’s HGV driver shortage, are another case in point, with Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota having invested in trials into driverless trucks. However, Deepti Yenireddy, director of products at logistics tech firm Samsara, said that while development of autonomous vehicles will continue, progress is “complex” and limited by regulations. “Becoming prevalent in commercial trucking will take a lot of time,” she told Supply Management.

Employee satisfaction

Using tech to tackle the labour shortage isn’t all about automation and robots. Sometimes it’s about thinking creatively about how everyday technologies can be used to tackle employee dissatisfaction that contributes to resignations. In one survey of frontline manufacturing workers across five countries, 45% said the opportunity to work in a more modern, digital environment would be part of their decision to leave their current employer. And research by McKinsey found that adoption of existing technologies could boost productivity by 1.5% GDP per year.

One of the biggest reasons to incorporate tech in the logistics sector is to address employee dissatisfaction – which can in turn help tackle labour shortages, Philip van der Wilt, vice-president for EMEA at Samsara said. For instance, Samsara has developed tech to help digitalise previously paper-based logistics processes, as well as dash cam technology to improve driver safety.

Installing dash cams in trucks raises privacy concerns from drivers, but such technologies could go some way to tackling the gender gap within the HGV workforce, van der Wilt argued. He told SM: “There’s not a company I’ve spoken to that is very successful in hiring female drivers, which [would be] another way to solve the driver shortage. But it can be hard to attract women to this job. Safety is one of those concerns, and having cameras is definitely helping take away some of the concerns of female drivers.”

Tech should be there to aid workers, rather than workers aiding tech, van der Wilt insisted. “There are two camps in Silicon Valley. One [thinks] that technology will fix everything - technology above anything. The other says no, technology’s here to serve the people. I’m in the second camp.

“Start talking to a driver about all the things that he or she doesn’t like about their role, or why a [woman] doesn’t want to be a driver. It’s not about the driving itself, it’s about all the things around it. The inspection, the paperwork, whatever you have that makes it a hard job to do. So again, digital can make working such a better experience.”

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