The country’s business-process outsourcing (BPO) sector should not fear the havoc that would be wreaked by automation on millions of Filipinos working in call centers, according to local and international experts.
In the forum on “Technology for Inclusion” at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) last Friday, Accenture Philippines Senior Managing Director Ambe Tierro said their own research revealed only 16 percent of jobs are at risk due to automation.
Tierro said since this is a projection, nothing is set in stone with regard to both job losses and job creation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). She said as jobs are lost, some are created and the only way to avoid obsolescence is to continue “upskilling and reskilling.”
“You never know what will happen in terms of creating new industries and new markets because of these technologies. But I would like to offer, if we are merely focusing on job gains, job losses, we are missing a crucial point because as earlier covered, the most important impact of artificial intelligence is the nature of the jobs and the reconfiguration of those jobs,” Tierro said.
“The soft skills are the hard skills. Communication, discernment with all the fake news you need to have critical thinking able to adapt and to be agile but from a qualification standpoint, there are new job categories being created,” she added.
Tierro said that while the local BPO sector has implemented a “massive implementation” of robotics process automation (RPA), not all jobs are lost since the industry still need employees who can “create those algorithms and models, train the models, and eventually interpret the results.”
RPAs, Tierro said, have been “a great help” in improving the quality of customer experience their company offers their clients. These have been instrumental in creating a 100 percent recall of transactions.
She said that to this end, their company has created a virtual platform where all their employees can improve their skills either by upskilling or reskilling. This platform has already been opened to all their employees.
“Many companies are adopting conversational AI [artificial intelligence] technology and the application of that are virtual agents and for me, personally, it takes the robot out of the human because now they don’t have to answer the repetitive questions because the virtual agents handle those and the human agents now get the more interesting problems,” Tierro said.
“We need to reimagine the world. So it’s no longer jobs but because job descriptions will become obsolete, but you need to imagine it as an outcome and what skills you need and assign to those skills to both humans and robots and so this interplay between human and machines is an important trend,” she also said.
In an Asian Development
Blog, ADB Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department Economist Sameer Khatiwada said “doomsday” predictions about the impact of the 4IR on BPO jobs are “unrealistic.”
Khatiwada said some estimates claim that anywhere between 50 percent to as much as 90 percent of all BPO jobs are at risk of automation.
He said the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IT-BPAP) estimates that the share of low-skill BPO workers will decline to 27 percent in 2022, from 47 percent in 2016.
Khatiwada said these positions—such as customer support clerks and data entry assistants—entail process-driven tasks that can be handled by automated processes with relative ease.
However, Khatiwada said despite this, the IT-BPAP expects the total number of workers directly employed in the industry to increase to 1.8 million by 2022, from 1.2 million in 2016.
“Doomsday predictions of mass joblessness are not realistic. Even pessimistic projections of employment growth in the sector show steady increases in job creation,” Khatiwada said.
“Across the industry, there will be more jobs in five years in medium-skill occupations, such as financial data analysis and for high-skill workers like computer programmers,” he added.
However, Khatiwada said the Philippines cannot be complacent. Maintaining its leadership position in BPO and meeting the demands of the 4IR are major education challenges for the country.
Khatiwada said more training and education are needed to ensure the work force is equipped to carry out the middle- and high-skill jobs that will emerge from automation.
“To prepare for the likely growth in middle- and high-skill jobs, industry leaders point to a need for a concerted effort to upskill and reskill BPO workers,” he said.
The ADB estimates that the country’s BPO sector, a major economic player in the past 20 years, commands 13 percent of the global BPO market. The BPO sector accounts for around 6 percent of country’s GDP and directly employs 1.2 million Filipinos.