Embracing Automation: From Deskilling Concerns to Upskilling Opportunities

by Zuzanna Kowalik, Researcher, the Institute for Structural Research, Warsaw

3 min read

In our fast-paced era of technological progress, automation has seamlessly integrated into diverse industries, promising heightened efficiency and productivity. This blog post delves into the potential impact of automation on skill requirements, spotlighting the intriguing example of Shared Services Centres in Poland.

As automation technologies advance, specific routine and repetitive tasks are handed to machines. This phenomenon has intrigued scholars for decades. In 1974, American sociologist Harry Braverman foresaw automation leading to deskilling, noting a diminishing influence of workers on automated production lines. A lack of control over their tasks made their skills less crucial, fostering a sense of disconnection from their work outcomes.

The debate persisted, with scholars questioning the universality of this phenomenon. As automation reached the office, the query shifted: Would cognitive professions witness a similar deskilling trend? Today, routine cognitive tasks, such as data entry and basic customer service queries, are being increasingly automated thanks to Intelligence Process Automation (IPA), Artificial Intelligence, or Large Language Models (like ChatGPT). This shift prompts us to ponder: How will workers adapt, and will it lead to the deskilling of their professions?

The ongoing research on Shared Services Centres, quasi-autonomous entities offering services to central organisations, provides intriguing insights. Paradoxically, automation appears to lead to upskilling and positive outcomes for workers. Automation has, in fact, increased worker autonomy and job quality by relieving them of mundane tasks, now efficiently handled by bots or robots. Moreover, workers actively engage in the automation process, unlocking opportunities for skill development and exploring programming-related talents. Workers welcome this engagement, as skills linked to automation and programming are highly valued and recognised in the labour market.

Simultaneously, the scarcity of adequately skilled individuals in the market compels employers who plan to introduce automation to tap into their existing workforce. Companies benefit from involving existing staff in those efforts, leveraging workers’ familiarity with processes. In their pursuit of growth, they must attract and retain talent capable of handling more advanced tasks but recognise the scarcity of such individuals in the market. The bottom-up automation drive aids in reducing turnover and addressing hiring challenges.

Automation, while streamlining specific processes, might open avenues for upskilling. Yet, the phenomenon observed in Polish shared services centers stems from a distinct macroeconomic context — a labor shortage driven by demographics that constrain companies' ongoing growth aspirations. The lack of properly skilled people on the market makes employers engage their existing workforce in the automation process, eventually increasing autonomy and chances for upskilling. Exploring how this dynamic might unfold in a different macroeconomic context, where labour supply is ample, could provide valuable insights for further research.

Nevertheless, even if some cognitive tasks are automated, professions will definitely adapt by emphasising skills that complement automation, including critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence—qualities machines currently lack. In this way, automation becomes a catalyst for a more creative and innovative workforce, challenging the traditional notion of deskilling.


About the Author

Zuzanna Kowalik is a researcher at the Institute of Structural Research and a PhD Candidate at the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Sociology. Her doctoral thesis delves into how emerging technologies are reshaping job quality in the context of non-traditional work settings, such as remote work or platform-based employment. 

Technology, Employment and Wellbeing is a new FES blog that offers original insights on the ways new technologies impact the world of work. The blog focuses on bringing different views from tech practitioners, academic researchers, trade union representatives and policy makers.

picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Bebeto Matthews

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