Sure, automation is chopping off many a basic job and job requirements. But that doesn't mean workforces will have to deal with fewer jobs. Image Credit: AFP

“Dad, why aren’t you at work?” asked Charlie. “Oh, well the toothpaste factory thought they’d give me a bit of time off,” replied Mr. Bucket.

Mrs. Bucket cast her husband a sympathetic, but apprehensive, glance as he answered their son. “Like a summer vacation?” Charlie continued to quiz his father.

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“Sure, something like that,” said Mr. Bucket, conjuring the best smile he could muster.

But it wasn’t a vacation at all. Nor was it summer. The winter was closing in and Charlie’s father had found himself out of work.

Mr. Bucket had worked on a production-line. His job saw him sit at a bench each day, diligently screwing caps on toothpaste tubes once they had been filled. The hours at the factory were long and the pay was terrible, but that job had been keeping the family in cabbage soup for years.

With Charlie out of earshot, Mrs. Bucket comforted her husband. “You’ll find another job,” she whispered. “Till then, I’ll just make the soup a bit thinner.”

Call in the machines

Not far away, plumes of smoke could be seen funnelling out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the largest in chocolate factory history no less. The excellent and wildly eccentric entrepreneur had started out with a single shop on Cherry Street, but before long, the entire world had started demanding his candy – and it was having a knock-on effect on other businesses too.

The upswing in sales of Wonka’s sweet treats had led to a rise in tooth cavities, which in turn had led to an increase in toothpaste sales. With the extra money it was earning, the factory had decided to modernize, eliminating Mr. Bucket’s job and replacing it with machines.

All ends well

For critics of automation in the workplace, it would be convenient for the story to end here. Only it doesn’t. Just like his son who won a coveted golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Mr. Bucket’s own luck was about to change.

By the end of the tale, Mr. Bucket is back, only this time, he’s a supplier to the toothpaste factory and takes on the role of fixing the very machines that had replaced him. What’s more, with a more skilled job came a far higher salary too, affording the Bucket family a more comfortable life, not to mention a more varied diet.

Aside from enthralling children and adults alike since 1964, Roald Dahl’s world-renowned story of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ is testament to three things: One, that Willy Wonka-style innovation is to be embraced, no matter how outlandish the idea. Two, that the fear of automation is not new. And three, that despite regularly being positioned as the nemesis of man, the rise of the machine has in fact been boosting the skills and fortunes of we humans for years.

Don’t bother trying to stall

Last week I talked about the rise of automation, and the message is worth repeating. The increasing automation of work processes is an unstoppable - and thankfully, positive – transition, and one that opens doors rather than slams them shut.

As forward-thinking companies roll out new technologies, their people won’t be kicked out, they will be retrained and upskilled. With technology handling many of the mundane and time-consuming tasks, employees will be unchained from drudge work and set free to explore their creativity, hone their soft skills and add more meaning to their working lives.

Like Mr. Bucket, they maybe even be better paid for it too - who knows?

Roald Dahl’s colorful characters are works of fiction, but real-world examples aren’t hard to come by, and as a recent article from The Brookings Institute suggests, the future of work and workforces will depend on the balance between labor replacing technologies and labor reinstating technologies that generate new tasks at which humans have a comparative advantage.

That’s not just upskilling, it’s creating entirely new roles too. And at a time of health crisis, when employment uncertainty looms large and the world craves innovation like never before, that can only be a good thing, right?

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of ‘Leadership Dubai Style’. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.