Comment: Training will ensure AI doesn’t kill retail jobs
There’s a great cartoon of a group of Daleks admitting defeat in their objective of conquering the universe because they are unable to navigate a simple flight of steps. It’s an analogy that could be applicable to various technologies over the years that have worried the experts and commentators because of their predicted extermination of jobs.
In recent generations – post the Industrial revolution – we’ve had the advent of computers, then the internet, and in recent years the rise of robotics/automation. They have each been described as harbingers of job losses – including many within the world of retail. The reality is the IT revolution did not push unemployment in retail (or anywhere else for that matter) through the roof and the internet with its online shopping capability has not done this either.
Yes, the internet has driven changes in customer behaviour and there has been a decrease in in-store roles but these have been more than offset by new positions in areas such as warehousing and fulfilment as well as other associated jobs that have arisen on the back of the growth of online retail.
Likewise, with robotics. Although we are still in the infancy of the use of robotic devices it’s difficult to see them – just like the Daleks – conquering many working roles in the foreseeable future. I’d say they look more likely to be a positive force in the workplace by undertaking the jobs involving laborious, repetitive tasks that are proving increasingly difficult to fill with human beings.
The latest game-changer is AI that is clearly in its embryonic stages and was largely beyond most people’s comprehension until it was given a dramatic boost with the launch of ChatGPT. This brought it into mainstream focus and led to near-hysteria as predictions were made about the swathes of jobs that look set to be lost. This still persists but I’d suggest these gloomy forecasts are some way off the mark. And please don’t tell me it will be different this time because it’s always different this time.
Absolutely AI will have a dramatic impact on the retail industry as it will surely have on most industries. In many ways that have not yet even been conceived. As a result it would be folly to suggest that jobs won’t be affected and there will be some areas that will be most obviously impacted – such as the back office and customer service. But the positive thing is that there will be the creation of many other new roles involving AI. There will also be the scenario of many roles having to evolve such as those involving content creation because they will need to be redefined as they will very likely involve the use of AI tools.
The upshot of all this will probably be a neutral position on job gains/losses in the retail sector. But this will only be possible with one crucial factor – training. There will be many circumstances where retail employees need to learn new skill-sets and this will be a scenario across all levels of the industry – from the shop-floor to the board-room. Without the relevant training then the risk of job losses and difficulties encountered in the retail sector will undoubtedly rise.
The training of people with the skills that fit within a new AI-powered landscape will be paramount. AI alone will not provide the answers to success in the future. This will require an alignment of these new tools with people in retail organisations.
The recent People in Retail Awards highlighted how people are the secret sauce of the industry and that AI is hardly going to jettison the stars of the industry. But they will need to be armed with the right tools to be able to contribute just as effectively in the future as they are doing today.
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