Retailers like Walmart are embracing robots – here’s how workers can tell if they’ll be replaced

Walmart recently said it plans to deploy robots to scan shelves, scrub floors and perform other mundane tasks in its stores as the retail giant seeks to lower labor costs.

While the retail giant did not say which jobs, if any, might be lost as a result, the announcement – and the many more surely to follow at other big box retailers – begs the question: How can workers prepare for a future of increasingly automated work?

Millions of today’s jobs are expected to be affected by artificial intelligence and automation as part of the “fourth industrial revolution.” But just which occupations are most at risk has been a guessing game among economists, futurists and scholars trying to predict winners and losers.

As experts on workers’ identities and careers and industry and technological change, we developed a new tool we believe will help workers more accurately determine the fate of their professions – and figure out how best to prepare.

Who will be hurt

A host of research studies have examined where industrial revolution 4.0 is likely to wield its greatest impact.

Driven by a focus on cost and efficiency, most predictions pit one group of workers against another. For example, blue collar versus white collar, skilled versus unskilled, college-educated versus not college-educated and even predictions by race and gender.

While these broad groupings may grab headlines, they offer little guidance to individual workers at a time when, more than ever, individuals are expected to take responsibility for managing and driving their own careers.

Rather than focus on efficiency or cost, our research offers a more nuanced and sustainable tool for examining the fate of one’s profession: value.

While humans will still value the skills of a college professor in the future, AI and online learning tools are threatening the way those abilities are delivered. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Worker value

Our research is based on the idea that every individual’s work creates value in his or her day-to-day job.

That value may be something a customer pays for, may enable co-workers to do their own jobs or may help the company to function internally. In any case, every job provides some degree of worth or usefulness to another party. The value is constant, but the way it is created and delivered to the end user can be threatened by automation and AI. Only after we’ve evaluated that can we determine how the coming wave of technological change will affect a job’s future prospects. To assess these threats, we need to break value down into two key components.

First, value is created by the skills required to complete a job, such as a programmer’s ability to code or a painter’s knack at prepping a wall and applying paint cleanly. In general, we’ve found that when skills are standardized, they are more likely to be threatened by automation or AI.

The second component of value, though, is separate from skills. It’s the method of delivering a job’s value to someone else, which can also be threatened by new technology. We call this “value form.”

For example, while a college professor’s skills and expertise in a particular domain may not be under immediate threat, the form in which their value is delivered is certainly threatened by online learning platforms and the increased use of AI education tools.

By considering these two threats together, workers can better assess if their jobs are at risk.

Displaced or durable

Our framework has four categories: A job could be displaced, disrupted, deconstructed or durable depending on the level of threat facing its skills and value form.