“Machines will never replace humans,” grumbled an executive sitting behind me during Neil Jacobstein’s presentation on “The Rise of the Machines” at the 25th SIA Executive Forum in late February 2016. Interestingly, he was not the only attendee who expressed discomfort with the notion that the staffing industry as a whole was going through an inflection point. Case in point: Although this year’s theme at the Executive Forum was “Past, Present and Future of Staffing,” the majority of discussions throughout the week weighed heavily on the future part, the intersection of where humans meet machines in particular.
The question of, Will machines ever replace humans? isn’t all that new. For example, the automobile industry has always been dealing with this very topic, and is currently grappling with the push for autonomous cars. Yet, it is so visceral to staffing industry professionals because the product and service they offer to their customers is human capital. Moreover, this is not the first time that automation has become such a hot topic in the staffing industry. During his keynote opening speech, Barry Asin, the President of SIA, noted how disruptive email and PC connectivity (now known as the Internet) were regarded within the staffing industry in 1995. “You mean, to apply for a job, you don’t have to pick up and fill out the paper-based application form by hand, and then mail it along with your resume in a manila envelope with two stamps?” another executive chuckled, recalling how things used to be.
It’s interesting to observe that the problem that the staffing industry is trying to address has never changed in the past 100 years: connecting companies with the best talent (and vice versa, connecting people with best companies). The problem that the Alfred Marks Bureau tried to solve by launching a service to provide temporary waiters for banquets in London in 1919 is the exact same problem that companies like Uber, Lyft, Wonolo, and Upwork are trying to solve in 2016. What changed is how, and millions of staffing professionals in this $3.1 trillion industry have been trying to perfect the how for the past few decades.
So, why is this time so different than before? Many executives at the Executive Forum highlighted the fact that we were in the midst of the perfect storm, where the adoption of technology, changing legislative environment, increasing sophistication of companies, and workers’ definition of work were colliding simultaneously. This has a significant impact on how staffing professionals think about the flexibility, efficiency, quality, and value of their service. Accordingly, this is where machines can help.
- Flexibility: How can technology help deliver flexible solutions to their customers and workers in terms of scheduling, pricing, etc.?
- Efficiency: How can technology help reduce time-to-fill while increasing job fill rate?
- Quality: How can technology help predict and match jobs with the perfect candidate each time?
- Value: How can technology identify value drivers and share these metrics across all constituents?
Does that mean that the human side will become obsolete? When I asked this question to some of the most progressive staffing executives I met, they posited that it’s the last-mile touch that machines can never win over humans, such as:
- What does company culture mean for companies engaged with temp workers?
- How do you communicate the differentiators of your service other than pricing with your customers?
- How do you partner and collaborate with competitors in the ecosystem?
- How do you retain temporary workers and build a strong community around them?
My thought is this: Even if you implement automation and intelligent software systems and tools to make your service more flexible and efficient, your customers and workers will not receive the same value without the final human touch. Perhaps this can also be automated down the road, but that’s a topic for the 50th SIA Executive Forum in 2041. In the meantime, though, get ready for big changes ahead as technology disrupts the how of solving the 100-year-old business problem of getting the right staff at the right time.