In 2016, the International Federation of Robots reported that China had set a new record, by installing 87,000 industrial robots in a single year. This number then increased by 58% in 2017—nearly double the global demand that year—and the country currently has the highest operational stock of robots in the world.
This growing appetite for an automated workforce in China is feeding anxieties about how to build a career in the country, as it marks a significant change in the way that the Chinese market works.
“Conventionally, we have said that Chinese economic growth depends on our labor-intensive workforce,” says Dr Frank Ng, a lecturer in the department of management at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. “This will change now we’re trying to shift to automation.”
According to Frank, the probable reason for the shift is the increased cost of labor in a declining workforce, as the aging population in China depletes the number of workers. Industries with poor or dangerous working conditions are also increasingly finding that employees are reluctant to take on the risk, and so turn to machines to get the job done.
Which industries will be affected—and how?
In this landscape, where automation is cheaper, more precise, and more reliable than the much of the same work conducted by humans, it is clear that careers are going to undergo change, particularly in China.
In fact, Frank stresses that it’s not only so-called ‘low-end’, manual labor tasks that will be outmoded by machines, but also basic analytical processes. Accounting, for example, he predicts will be taken over by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the near future.
However, this doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for MBAs looking to create careers in Asia, or around the world.
“Certainly, many jobs will be replaced by robots, but at the same time, automation will create many new professions as well,” Frank explains.
“There are some industries that can actually benefit from automation—for example, some jobs require operations robots, which themselves will require maintenance and software development.”
Tech-savvy MBAs, then, will see a surge in demand under automation, but Frank stresses that the changes will be widely-felt across industries.
“Students have got to be prepared to change their careers during their lifetime,” he says, “and sometimes even their working location.”
What these changes demand from managers
And how will management change in this brave new world? After all, managing a largely automated workforce will present a different roster of challenges to a human company, and it must change how management is taught at CUHK Business School.
As far as Frank can see, many of the requirements of managers will still be the same, because they will need to manage the people who maintain the machines.
However, some things will have to change—among them, the criteria with which employees’ performance is evaluated.
“Usually, when we evaluate employees, we are concerned with their productivity and efficiency,” he explains. “But where automation is concerned, robots monitor these issues already—that will change our considerations to how we collaborate with other employees in the company, and how managers handle issues that cannot be replaced by robots.”
A uniquely human skillset
Soft skills like negotiation and creativity, then, are an area that Frank believes machines can’t penetrate, and why teaching the minutiae of technological change is less important to Frank than a firm grasp of necessary management skills.
“Nowadays, technology is changing rapidly and everything can change and be useless within decades,” he explains. “To help MBA students prepare for this world, we have to give them more value-added knowledge that’s less likely to be replaced by automation.”
This ethos defines the attitude to technology on the CUHK Business School MBA, where technological advancement is always contextualized with actual business problems and solutions, for example through organized talks from CEOs and influential alumni.
“These guest speakers’ valuable sharing of experiences can help students get to know what the latest trends are, but also how to seize the opportunities involved, and not simply provide technological knowledge,” says Frank.
The program aims to provide exposure to technology without getting too tethered to the specifics, so that students can learn how to weather the changes and not get mired in the details.
For example, the ‘Management in Action’ course sees MBAs split into teams of five, in which they each take on the role of someone in a small startup-type company.
In these positions, they role-play different challenges that company might face, taking cues from the real business challenges they see going on all around them, and learn to think creatively in order to solve issues and negotiate.
This, for Frank, is the key to unlocking a future in an automated China—and the reason why an MBA still offers a clear route forward.