Technology is transforming the labour market worldwide – and even in the Middle East, where despite an assumption that the appetite for automation is relatively limited, a recent study by McKinsey & Company suggests that around 45 per cent of current jobs could be automated with existing technologies. This translates to more than 20m full-time roles in countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
However, the age of automation should not be viewed as a threat to future employment, but rather an opportunity for employers to focus on repurposing employees’ skillsets to complement automated processes, according to regional experts.
“HR teams will need to highlight how the advent of machines to conduct routine tasks will actually give [human employees] more time to strategise, innovate, lead and focus on customer interaction and satisfaction,” said Nader Haffar, partner and head of management consulting and public sector at KPMG in the Lower Gulf.
Automation also presents HR departments with a unique scenario – a workforce that is diverse not only from a cultural perspective, but also in its very form, with human beings working more and more with programmable machines and robots, said Haffar.
But he warns that HR faces the challenge of dispelling fears about people losing their jobs to machines, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where youth unemployment rate ranges between 21 per cent and 25 per cent, according to World Bank data.
“[Businesses] must stress the fact that while much of the future work may be carried out by machines or robots, they will still need to be managed by humans, to ensure that work runs smoothly.
“The focus now is on adopting newer models and techniques of people management, which involve empowering employees, building emotional intelligence, developing synergies between human skillsets and machine intelligence, and overall adjusting to a new normal of coexistence with automation at the workplace,” Haffar said.
He notes that automation is increasingly making inroads into several fields, but large-scale change will likely be felt first in manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and other sectors involving mechanical or repetitive processes.
Dr Vijay Pereira is an associate professor at the Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD). He agrees that transactional or operational jobs – compared with transformational or strategic work – will be hit by automation.
He also believes that in an evolving global economic landscape, automation plays a part in achieving sustainability – more so for countries in the Middle East, as they diversify their economies away from oil and gas revenues.
“[Adopting alternative methods and new technologies] to carry out work faster, better and cheaper is not only a matter of [promoting] development, but also of being sustainable,” he said. “HR should seize this opportunity to be proactive by identifying in advance what jobs can be automated, who among their employees must be retrained, and which new skills must be learned. [The key] is to retrain, develop and educate the existing workforce within the value chain.”
And as for the future? The McKinsey survey underscores that while the potential for the substitution of human labour increases with the advent of automation, technology is actually creating more jobs than it destroys, based on potential gains in productivity and performance across industries.
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