Follow up notes to “Many Fear Automation Will Wipe Out Jobs. But Automating Buildings Will Be a Jobs Creator“

In my recent Greentech Media (GTM) article on automation and job gains/losses in smart buildings, I discussed how technology has impacted other service and human-centric jobs, highlighting that jobs are not always lost. In some cases, technology enables the creation of jobs and/or existing jobs to be more productive and generate higher wages. The GTM article includes examples from banks (ATMs did not lead to an overall reduction in the number of bank tellers) and UPS (drivers have seen significant increases in take-home pay due to technology that drives more productivity). The bottom line is that technology can reduce the costs of delivering a product or service, which enables it to be provided to a broader market. For example, ATMs did reduce the overall number of tellers in each branch, but they also reduced the operating costs for the given branch. Banks were then able to build more branches in more places, staffed by some tellers (along with ATMs).

The GTM article also discussed opportunities in building and facility management: just under 60 percent of commercial buildings conduct regular HVAC maintenance (3.2 million out of a total of 5.6 million commercial buildings). A technology-enabled HVAC service offering could lower the cost, making it more compelling for the other 2.4 million buildings. Technology may lead to fewer workers per building, but it may lead to more buildings having some staff to use technology to manage the facility.

For additional reading on this topic, there are a few great books about how technology and automation stand to change our economy and our society:

(Note: Both of these books look at the whole economy, not just facilities management, but still are worth a read.)

Additionally, I’ve come across some more interesting resources and received comments from industry leaders. I’m including notes here as a follow up to the original Greentech Media article.

  • USA Today recently published an article on automation and jobs and cited two interesting studies. PWC found that 58 percent of CEOs plan to cut jobs specifically due to robotics and 16 percent are planning to hire more. PWC estimates that 49 percent of all jobs can be automated. McKinsey, which also looks at this issue, estimates that 45 percent of all jobs can be automated. However, these statistics do not consider the new jobs that can’t be foreseen today that will be created due to technology.
  • On this note, in many cases, new technology requires testing and trial & error to fully understand its value and applications. McKinsey cites Nicolas Carr on the move from steam engines to electrical energy, a point that has been highlighted in “The Second Machine Age”, too. McKinsey’s report states: “…everything was driven from a central mechanical drive. The first attempts at using electricity tried to duplicate this, but only really made a difference when people realized it would be more efficient to distribute electrical energy through the building, and have separate electric motors in individual machines, rather than one central motor that distributes mechanical energy.“ As smart building technologies proliferate in buildings, new applications will be discovered, which will create new roles and responsibilities for professionals.
  • In response to my article, I heard from one facility management professional noting that when he sells building controls upgrades to management, he highlights that his staff can be transitioned to higher-value tasks. This is not unlike UPS, which uses technology to get more out of its drivers.
  • Additionally, I heard from an energy manager who noted that smart building technologies provide data and analysis capabilities that make strategic roles within buildings and energy management more feasible.
  • There was one comment on the original GTM article page highlighting the lack of talent: many facility professionals are approaching retirement age and there is a shortage of younger employees entering the industry. Automation and technology may make this talent shortage less severe, and may lead more younger employees to take on a data-driven facility management career.
  • On Linkedin, one commenter again noted that there are many buildings that require additional maintenance to improve operations and reduce costs, yet the current, mostly manual services, are too expensive or do not appeal to these building owners. The data cited in the original article, about HVAC service, only partially tells the story: Most buildings require other types of service, too, though the CBECS data only includes HVAC. (Additionally, HVAC is typically the biggest share of maintenance.)
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