Are bots coming for your job?

While vendors and federal managers try to paint a future of "high value work," some are starting to acknowledge that robotic process automation could lead to job losses in the federal workforce.

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While federal managers try to paint a picture of a future of "high value work," some are starting to acknowledge that robotic process automation could lead to job losses in the federal workforce.

John Bergin, the executive director for the Information Sharing and Services Office in the Department of Defense, said at an Oct. 25 event that automation doesn't necessarily mean better work for existing employees.

"They’re not going to get better work, I need them not to do the work, I need the relief," at an Oct. 25 event hosted by Government Executive and sponsored by Broadcom.

"Look, I have to buy F-35s, I have to buy Columbia-class replacements, I need to protect the country, I don't need to protect people’s jobs. As a steward of the taxpayer, I must protect the taxpayer base," Bergin said.

This is in sharp contrast to the stance that is usually taken when the issue of jobs and RPA is discussed. On the same conference panel, AJ Casamento, a principal solutions architect at Broadcom, said, "We need to make [people] comfortable that there will be even more interesting stuff for them to do once the automation" is in place.

Surveys done by Forrester Research show that job loss is one of the main concerns of employees when discussing this technology. It found that 67 percent “of automation technologists cite the fear of job loss as creating the most severe negative attitudes.”

Another Forrester report estimates that 17 percent of the workforce could face job loss over the next 10 years due to automation.

Maura McDevitt, a vice president and controller at the U.S. Postal Service, said earlier this year at an event hosted by RPA provider UiPath that USPS had eliminated positions due to the implementation of RPA, but that the agency was "not firing anyone."

At the same event, Chris Huff, the U.S. public sector robotics leader at Deloitte, said RPA would help "shift workforce to higher value work."

Moving people to more high value work as a result of RPA implementation does occasionally happen, but it's not the reality for everyone, Forrester analyst Craig Le Clair told FCW.

"It’s a mix, but the two voices on this, the tech industry and business, just present way too rosy a view," LeClair said.

For example, a mortgage bank recently laid off 36 people after deploying RPA in the loan origination process after having told those employees that they wouldn’t be fired as a result of automation.

They were told “they were going to have more volume and the more volume would be done by the same number of people, but when the volume didn’t materialize they were just able to remove people,” Le Clair said.

He wrote last year that the “tech industry and business leaders should be more honest about what we are doing and not try to paint it as benefiting the working majority.” But he's not too confident they will make the change.

“The bar for honesty has been lowered overall,” he said.

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