While visiting IKEA’s headquarters in Älmhurt, Sweden, I did not get to eat actual moose meatballs — but I did learn many things. I toured the testing lab, which performed 15,500 tests during IKEA’s 2017 fiscal year (which ran from September 2016 to the end of August 2017). The folks at IKEA expect the lab to perform up to 17,000 tests in fiscal 2018. That is a lot of washed sheets, pulled drawers, and stained countertops.
And yet, only 37 people work in the lab. The brunt of the work is handled by specialized robots that press weights on chairs and couches, open and close doors, and handle all the other boring, redundant tasks. It got me thinking about the fears people have around automation taking their jobs. Because those fears are very much grounded in reality, and have been for decades.
But people have adapted. And in the testing lab, there are even some folks who are grateful for the automation. For example, in a lab devoted to testing candles, someone had initially been tasked with dropping in every half hour to check on soot levels, see how the candle was burning, and assess how much wax had dripped onto the table. In the last year, the lab replaced the human checks with a camera. In this particular case, that person had other tasks to perform, and lost one that probably didn’t add a lot to their job satisfaction.
That’s not to say we should view automation as simply a way to trade crappy duties for something more fulfilling. On the contrary: what it transforms is the speed of change and the types of jobs that are going to be eliminated. It doesn’t impact our education or our thought processes around what a job entails, or how we measure success or satisfaction. And as automation takes over more of our existing jobs, we really do need to start focusing on ways to make the workforce more agile.
It’s obvious, but as I watched robots pummel IKEA furniture, I realized that we need to develop a sense of urgency when it comes to job training and support for workers so they can adapt to the new automated world and still have the means to buy modestly priced flat-pack furniture.