Follow up notes on automation and jobs in building and facility management

A number of my recent articles (here and here) have focused on how automation will impact jobs within the building industry. This is top of mind for me, between being a software product manager in the building industry and spending my spare time reading books like “Rise of the Robots”, “The Second Machine Age” and “The Industries of the Future”.

Following up on these articles, I have a couple additional notes on this topic:

On the talent gap in facilities management

  • There are not enough people entering this industry and many people in the industry are aging. Technology solutions will be necessary to fill this gap and technology may enable non-facility technicians to serve the market in some instances. Related, JLL, one of the largest facility management firms, published a paper in 2014 about how millennials should consider the field, an attempt to boost recruitment.
  • Another book that touches these topics is “Average is Over”, by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen. He looks at how machines and technology will impact jobs in the future, and discusses how chess software has impacted the game. Freestyle chess, where humans can use software programs to help them play, is an example covered in the book. In many cases, the best freestyle players, who are not always grandmasters themselves, are able to consistently beat grandmasters. Human+machine is better than a human and also better than a machine. Cowen talks about why this is the case in the book: the conclusion is that he believes some jobs in the future will not be replaced by machines, but will definitely change and be supplemented by machines. In the case of facility management, some willing facility engineers don’t have the experience of those retiring. Conversely, some employers can’t hire professionals that have as much experience as they would like. Software supplementing the employees may be a good way to address this talent gap.
  • A similar trend is happening in semi-trucks, in which there is a shortage of drivers but autonomous trucks may fill that demand. Some articles actually note that the “shortage” is overblown because of the expected advances in autonomous trucks.

On the changing workplace and changing office

  • Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley Venture Capital firm, recently recorded a podcast about autonomous cars, which have some similarities with smart buildings. Specifically, the discussion highlights a case in which automated cars might replace the need for some office buildings. Specifically: doctors could make more house calls, doing their prep and follow up in the car, while traveling to the next appointment. This means the doctor would not need a regular office — the car would become that office. The podcast also discusses the avoidance of trips: today a New Yorker needs to take a train or cab to visit the High Line. But, in the future, with higher car utilization (and fewer cars overall) there may be more space to build more parks (and more high lines), meaning that more people can get to parkland more easily (via a quick walk, not a car trip).
  • In Sweden, there are entrepreneurs helping to connect workers with open homes during workdays, so they can work together in an office-like setting. In this example, the actual office space is replaced with an alternative. There are some innovative aspects to the model, such as a group standup for each person to report his/her goals for the day, plus an update at the end of the day to discuss who hit his/her goals, and a break every 45 minutes.

It’s clear that the situation is not as simple as — will the machines take our jobs? There are a number of factors at play — automation will help address some challenges (talent gap) but may be unrelated to others (desire to work from a home-like setting instead of an office).

Lastly, it takes a long time for new technology to be adopted, so we’re really just at the beginning of this journey. Some say that it takes 20 years for tech to be adopted and used to full value. We still don’t know quite what jobs the buildings of the future will need, so all the estimates of talent shortages (or surpluses) may be mistaken. But the industry should be prepared for changes driven by enhanced technology.

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