I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future of blue-collared work. As the co-founder of Nimbus, we build technology to make it easy for our clients to run their office. Unlike other on-demand startups, we do not employ people as independent contractors nor do we seek to replace our workers with robots. On the contrary, we invest a lot in proper employment, hiring, training and paying our blue-collar workers well to perform both scheduled and on-demand work from cleaning to aircon servicing and pantry stock up.
However, our good jobs strategy seems to fly in the face of the prevailing wisdom that robotics and automation will eventually replace all routine and mundane work. There is a passage in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s book Race Against the Machines that best encapsulates what I call the ‘Futurist’ view of work:
“Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. As we’ll demonstrate, there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”
I think the view is misguided – arguments about the future of work are too often framed in binary terms: either robot or human worker, machine learning or human memory. The reality is even if machines do take over some form of human activities in blue-collar work, it does not necessarily spell the end of the jobs in that line of work. The answer is often a bit more nuanced. I submit humans possess a lot of tacitknowledge that’s very hard to capture and automate. Overall, I think there are reasons to be bullish about the overall demand for blue-collar work. I shall outline my rationale below.
If we take a step-back to unpack this argument, Futurists who believe in books like The Rise of Robots argue typically make two critical assumptions:
(1) ‘Low-skilled’ jobs like cleaning and plumbing are routine and mundane, and it’s easy to build a robot to perform all of these tasks
(2) Robots are cheaper in the long run and less prone to human error which encourages a substitution effect from labor intensiveness to one which is more machinery intensive
Therefore, it follows from (1) and (2) blue-collared work like cleaning would soon be substituted by machines.
While the logic of the apocalypse view described above seems convincing, the first problem it faces is it flies in the face of empirical evidence that there are still many jobs available out there.
In his Ted Talk, MIT professor David Autor highlighted that many technological innovations over the last 200 years that were explicitly designed to replace human labor- Tractors, Assembly lines, Computers you name it- have succeeded. However, the percentage of US adults employed in the labor market is higher now in 2016 than it was during the industrial revolution.
Let’s first take the example of the ATM. Since the introduction of ATMs, which was widely touted to replace bank tellers, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has also roughly doubled, from a quarter of a million in 1970 to about a half a million today. Research by Basker (2015) showed that while barcode scanners have reduced a cashiers’ check out times by “18-19%, the absolute number of cashiers has grown at an annual rate of 2.1% between the 1980s through to 2013 since scanners were widely deployed during the 1980s.”
And the same phenomena can be seen in blue-collar work. In Singapore, Census data suggests there are more cleaners and laborers in 2000 than there were in 1990. Employment insights platform, Skillta also shows the demand for cleaners in Singapore is consistently increasing week-over-week. In absolute terms, there seem to be more cleaners and blue-collar workers than ever before.
In other words, there are still plenty of jobs around.
Now, this is not to say that machines have never succeeded in eradicating jobs. Examples of the lift operators or agricultural work in the US immediately comes to mind. But widespread unemployment due to technology has never materialized before, and it certainly does not look to be the case for blue-collared work. In fact, rather than automation accelerating job redundancy, I predict it will slow down. It is because so far, when it comes to automation, we have been picking the low hanging fruit first and this has given us an overly optimistic idea of how easy is it is to automate a job fully.
If machines can increasingly do the work for firms, why doesn’t this make labor and skills redundant?
I wonder how many people who make predictions of cleaners ever did a cleaning shift before to see what is it a cleaner exactly does. Cleaners don’t just clean as an autonomous iRobot ‘cleans.’ They have to take stock of missing pantry items. They determine what constitutes trash or valuable office items or where best dispose what kinds of trash. They water the office plants. They also have to analyse when best to clear the trash depending on an office’s workflow and meeting schedule. When talking to employees in an office, they act as customer representatives. When working with the office manager, they serve as a workspace consultant. They learn what the best way to clean specific areas. Many of these tasks require very ad-hoc and human judgment. These tacit knowledge are difficult to transfer.
Tyler Cowen gives a great example of another blue-collar occupation- truck drivers. In his commentary, he points out truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They act as security for the load, they also “secure loads, including determining what to load first and last … They deal with the government and others at weighing stations… they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc.”
In other words, the Futurists analyses of machines substituting routine work tends to overlook the complexity of blue-collar jobs at the granular level, severely underestimating the importance of local, tacit knowledge.
At Nimbus, when we deploy autonomous vacuum cleaners or robots to take over some of the activities of our workers, this does not spell the end of our worker ’s jobs In fact, it boosts the demand for our workers to perform complementary tasks, like fault-reporting of office space, conducting pantry stock-taking or socialising with new employees in an office environment to make them feel welcome.
In the services sector, where workers are often over utilised, the adoption of more machinery and robotics can alleviate the strain and increase the leverage of workers to become more productive. This often leads to higher salaries, more exciting work and just as many jobs as ever before. In this sector, machines are tools to enhance human productivity, not agents of creative destruction.
Task displacement does not equal job redundancy.
Furthermore, suppose even if a machine can be so efficient and automate many of the tasks of a single worker, job creation can still happen due to a firm’s increasing bullishness to expand their output. It could indirectly create more employment.
It was the case in the earlier example of the ATM. As David Autor showed, even while the number of bank tellers per branch fell by a third because it became much cheaper to run and open new bank branches, banks became more bullish about their business, and the net result was more branches, more bank tellers. And these bank tellers started to do different works which the machine couldn’t. For example, they began to do less of the cash-handling tasks and focused more on forging relationships with customers, troubling shooting banking issues and upselling more banking products and services. In this case, task displacement by a machine has occurred, and it led to more employment. Task displacement does not necessitate human replacement.
In the future, no doubt there will be new and better autonomous robots, more software and technology to automate office maintenance and cleaning. But at the end of the day (quite literally speaking), I am willing to bet someone will still have to service the space, top up the chemicals, water for the robotic cleaning machines, clear the trash, check for dust in non-obvious spots or welcome new employees with a friendly smile.
In my mind, the future of work and technology is symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.
Innovative business models that aim to co-opt and build technology that empowers their workers, rather than replace them are the smarter bet.
How far has environmental management and sustainability come in the past five years, and how does EMAS play into this?
The Environmental Management Association of Singapore (EMAS) was first established in 1986 by service providers from the cleaning, waste management and pest control industries. The aim of EMAS is to provide a cohesive platform for companies in the environmental industry to raise the professionalism of the sector, and address the common concerns of environmental and hygienic services.
In the context of the cleaning industry, environmental management and sustainability are about keeping Singapore clean, and how this effort can be sustained for the long term in view of the challenges faced by the industry.
Sustainability, in our view, is also about the general public taking social and collective responsibility – in playing their part to keep community spaces clean. In the long term, through community efforts, reduces the workload for the cleaning workforce; thereby helping the industry gravitate towards focusing on deep cleaning and sanitising/disinfection of those community spaces and the environment at large.
EMAS as a trade association spearheads several initiatives in partnership with government agencies. We then collaborate with our industry members so that information is shared effectively via several modes of engagement.
Some of these topics include information on best practices that are innovative and environmentally friendly, reducing wastage, and improving productivity. Cleaning companies are encouraged to adopt such solutions, in order to better manage the labour crunch, and ensure sustainability in the long term.
What are some of the challenges that have been thrown EMAS’ way and what is the association doing to overcome them?
The challenges have always been related to labour – manpower shortage due to an ageing workforce and locals shunning cleaning roles despite an increase in demand for services, and the private sector’s preference for headcount-based contracting.
EMAS has been working with related government agencies and industry players to propose a multi-prong approach in trying to overcome these challenges.
Firstly, EMAS is exploring alternative ways to attract locals – by redefining and redesigning jobs. With the proliferation of digital and automated solutions, cleaning businesses can transition workers upwards in the value chain.
As laborious tasks are reduced or eliminated, businesses are encouraged to relook their hiring processes to refresh job hiring descriptions, roles and responsibilities to reflect the more vibrant and interesting aspects of the role. With less emphasis placed on repetitive tasks, workers can be more engaged in value-adding aspects of the work.
Second, EMAS recognises that both service buyers and service providers seek value in agreements entered. To achieve this, both parties must ultimately align and shift focus towards objectives and outcomes (and not being tasks-based).
Taking an outcome-based approach can help unlock value for both stakeholders as it prioritises the achievement of goals, rather than a focus on the input of resources required.
The adoption of Outcome-based Contracts (OBCs) can help ease the shortages in manpower as contractual agreements focus on outcomes, while operations focus on productivity and continuous improvement through innovation. The most crucial factor in this model is the clear definitions of performance requirements in the agreement. Both service buyers and service providers must also engage in conversations on expectations. As such, more education is needed in order to bring more stakeholders on board.
In order for OBCs to be a successful model in the cleaning industry, there must be an ecosystem to support it. EMAS is currently in talks with several related agencies and industry players to enable this in the areas of training, information sharing and outreach.
Lastly, EMAS and society as a whole, need to protect and uplift the very people who help to make Singapore clean, green and hygienic for everyone. To protect our cleaners, in June 2021, EMAS as part of the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners, mapped out new wage levels and skills requirements for workers in the cleaning industry, with higher salary increments planned for the next six years under the Progressive Wage Model.
How did EMAS keep their members focused and engaged during the pandemic?
EMAS has been engaging actively with several government agencies to ensure timely information reaches our members – as can be seen from the fluidity of the pandemic situation. We have also worked with our strategic partner agencies to draft (and also update) advisories for the industry.
Additionally, EMAS also collates and shares information on a timely basis with all our members. In the event of anomalies, we help to seek advice from the relevant agency. In other instances, EMAS has helped our members to appeal on matters if there are genuine reasons for deviating from the norm.
Lastly, we gather on-ground feedback and industry information for the agencies – such as foreign manpower shortages brought about by travel restrictions, shortage of cleaning solutions at the time, as well as disrupted business activities during the pandemic.
How does speaking at events like CleanEnviro Summit Singapore (CESG) help to broaden the association’s reach?
EMAS’ vision is to uplift the industry and be the voice/bridge between industry players and government agencies; through regular communication and information sharing sessions.
CESG is a global networking platform for thought leaders, senior government officials and policymakers, regulators and industry captains to convene, confer and co-create clean environment solutions. Since 2012, attendance at CESG has been increasing from about 19,000 in 2012, to more than 24,000 in 2018.
While 2022’s attendance may be affected due to Covid, CESG is still an important platform for us to conduct outreach to potential members to share more about EMAS’ values. The more members we have, the better we are at collation and sharing of information that may be useful in crafting policies for the cleaning industry.
Associations rely on conferencing as a major source of income. How did EMAS obtain varied sources of revenue and perhaps, deployed cost-cutting in other areas?
Many events and conferences were postponed in the past two years, hence affecting income. EMAS has always been prudent with its costs. Purchases were either postponed or cancelled, unless they are business-critical.
Alternative ways of getting the job done were explored to reduce expenses. Our membership has increased; and we have explored and taken on several programmes/initiatives to increase our sources of income. EMAS has also adopted relevant grants or funding support in order to streamline our expenses.
What are some of the lessons EMAS has learnt from the pandemic and how are you a different association today compared to pre-Covid?
We have learnt that there are some cleaning companies which have no knowledge of support or information that can assist them. We are now more effective in the way we communicate and organise initiatives in our outreach to members. We acknowledge that digitisation and training are important even as an association, and have put together a plan to improve in these areas.
EMAS has evolved to a stronger and better association during the last two years of the pandemic. EMAS understands the importance of hygiene cleaning and will continue to advocate high cleaning standards in Singapore.
We will continue to equip our industry with the right know-how and skillset to tackle the next wave of “Pandemic X”.
Could you share some of EMAS’ future plans and projects?
Currently, EMAS has plans to accelerate digitalisation in our business processes. Other plans include learning trips, as well as to have deeper engagements with members and industry players through dialogues, webinars, seminars and events.
In the future, EMAS is moving forward to build capabilities and enhance knowledge of OBC. We are working with training providers to develop our own training arm to curate and develop training programmes on OBC. This will equip service buyers with essential skills in preparing contract specifications according to outcome-based principles, specifying outcome-based requirements, performance standards, etc. The courses will also be useful for service providers to gain understanding from a service buyer’s perspective, as well as knowledge of OBC contracts. This will be done in tandem to facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge to effectively manage OBC from both parties’ perspectives.
Another goal is to help build future talent and leadership within cleaning organisations, which will, in turn, build a resilient cleaning industry for many years to come.
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Since 2010, EMAS has been organizing overseas study trips and educational seminars for members to broaden their knowledge on best practices and technical knowledge to improve on their service deliveries.
On the social front, our annual Lunar New Year Lo Hei luncheon, bowling, futsal and golf events have been well received by members. For the purpose of establishing a general collaborative framework for partnership for the industry, EMAS has signed Memorandums of Understanding with the following parties:
Real Estate Construction Centre(RECC) in 2006,
Singapore Rope Access Association (SRAA) in 2014,
Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) in 2016
Training Masters Workforce Institute in 2016
International Facility Management Association Singapore Chapter (IFMA) in 2016
Global Alliance (Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Russia and South Africa) in 2016
Furthermore, in conjunction with Clean Enviro Summit Singapore (CESS) 2016, EMAS has also penned a Memorandum of Understanding with National Environment Agency to support this recurring event in every 2 years.