Amazon’s launch of its “Go” store -- essentially a grocery with no cashiers -- has fueled a debate about how automation will destroy jobs.
There are 3.4 million workers with some variant of the title “cashier” in America, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, making it one of the most common jobs in the country. But Amazon’s store eliminates this role. And soon, automated taxis, stores and restaurants could wipe out many millions of similar jobs across the service sector.
Experts are increasingly grappling with what technology, automation and artificial intelligence mean for the average worker. But it’s not all bad news.
For example, a recent Planet Money podcast noted that improvements in navigation and tracking technology enabled UPS to increase the number of packages that a driver can deliver in a day. Due to these improvements, the total compensation for a UPS driver has doubled over the past 20 years.
James Bessen, an economist and lecturer at Boston University on innovation who authored the book Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, notes that when ATMs were widely installed starting in the 1990s, many experts predicted that they would significantly reduce the number of bank tellers. In fact, since the 1990s there has been a dramatic increase in ATMs -- and also a modest increase in the number of bank tellers.
The explanation? While the average number of bank tellers per branch declined from 21 to 13, the lower costs of operating a bank branch meant that more branches were opened, each with additional bank tellers.
“We see a whole number of occupations where you might think that technology is going to destroy jobs because it’s taking over tasks, and the reverse happens,” said Bessen, speaking on the EconTalk podcast.
With this in mind, I have heard similar concerns about how smart building technologies will impact jobs.
What does this mean for facility management professionals in commercial buildings?
There is now a wide range of smart building technologies that can be economically employed in offices, educational facilities, and other building types. Software is increasingly being used to reduce the hours spent acquiring, normalizing and reviewing raw data feeds; identifying hard-to-find issues within complex equipment for continuous commissioning; and simplifying and automating the operation of buildings to reduce overall run-time hours or energy costs.
Some tasks currently conducted by facility management staff could become redundant due to automation. But many facility management staff have more than enough work to do -- and they should embrace technology that can automate basic tasks, thus enabling them to focus on higher value activities.
By letting software remotely detect and identify the cause of various equipment faults, facility management staff can spend less time finding problems (typically by walking the floor of a facility or receiving calls from occupants) and more time fixing them. For example, smart building technology can enable facility staff to tackle bigger problems and reduce deferred maintenance backlogs, which have been growing over the past few years.
With smart building technologies that automate some operations, the role of facility management may change. But like bank tellers and UPS drivers, facility managers won’t become obsolete.
In addition to enabling staff to focus on strategic problems, software and automation may enable them to begin serving a larger number of buildings, leading to overall growth in the number of professionals (again, similar to what happened at UPS).
According to the 2012 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, only 3.2 million of 5.6 million U.S. commercial buildings have regular HVAC service. Most commercial HVAC systems will benefit from some ongoing maintenance and repair. Of the 35 percent of commercial buildings that do not have regular maintenance, smart building technology can lower the costs of delivering such services and make it more financially realistic for prospective customers.
As more buildings begin to demand and pay for HVAC maintenance, there could be growth in the overall number of staff to support these new customers, even if automation and technology plays a role in the delivery of the outcomes.
Job growth could occur even if individual buildings do not grow their existing facility management teams.
The Building Performance Institute Europe backs this up in a fact sheet on building automation and control technologies: “[Building automation] systems are not used to their full potential to lower energy consumption in buildings. Maximizing this potential could provide a large opportunity for the construction value chain to significantly lower building operation costs and create new jobs for the energy management of buildings.”
Although many people are understandably fearful of how automation will restructure our economy, this fear shouldn’t spread to the building management space. As we’ve observed in other industries, automation can help lower the cost of service, leading to greater demand for the service and net growth in employment.
Joseph Aamidor is a product management expert in the smart buildings and internet-of-things business.