Do you want to pick fruit and vegetables for a living? No? Nor do most Britons, it seems. One of the unforeseen-but-obvious-in-hindsight Brexit consequences is that it turns out to be mostly foreigners who show up here at certain times of year and pick our fruit and veg. They aren’t taking ‘our’ jobs because there aren’t enough people here who want to do them anyway. It isn’t surprising: it’s hard, physical work and it’s repetitive, which means it’s both boring and painful.
Go back a few hundred years and most of the people in this country were engaged in farming. Getting enough food to live on meant working in the fields full time – along with most of the family. What surplus was available supported a small middle class, kept the nobility in their fancy castles and enabled a few crucial figures – blacksmiths, maybe – to concentrate on other jobs.
Gradually, technology came along so that farming required less time and, thus, fewer people. That freed a lot of former farmers to do other jobs, such as working in factories. (Which could be terrible for different reasons, but that’s beside the point.)
The point is that technology has done a great job of ensuring that fewer and fewer of us have to spend our lives in drudgery. Whenever this happens, however, there is a period of worry about what will happen to the people who do those jobs. Today, we’re seeing it happen with call-centres.
Google sparked the latest round of worry when it unveiled an AI that can handle inbound calls for a call-centre. It performs a kind of triage, dealing with the simple problems and passing on the trickier ones to a human further up the chain. So, the question lots of people have asked is: what will all the call-centre staff do?
The answer is obvious: they’ll do something else. The question is the wrong one. The real question should be: how can we ensure that the people who used to do those jobs get something more useful and satisfying to do instead?
Working in a call-centre is something a lot of people do – about a million people in Britain, for example. It’s not like picking fruit and veg but it’s not exactly popular, either. The churn rate averages 21 per cent a year, according to one recent report, but it’s much higher in larger companies. That’s one person in five who is out of the door as soon as something better comes along. Does that suggest a fulfilling job?
When you consider that a large chunk of a call-centre representative’s time is taken up by people who just want to shout at them (often for something that isn’t their fault) or spent answering the same handful of simple questions over and over, it’s not surprising that they don’t stick with it. For their employer, there are the costs of recruiting and training a replacement, all while trying to deliver a high-quality customer service.
The first wave of AI is taking away those kinds of tasks – routing the angry person through to someone who has the training and resources to placate them (with a discount or free subscription, say), and answering those tedious, repeated questions.
That means the people who make it through to talk to a human will be the ones who have a complex problem or who really needs to talk an issue through with an advisor. Those are high quality interactions that should be rewarding for someone who wants to work in customer service. And done well, they will enable the company to provide greater satisfaction, too. The customer won’t find themselves talking to a bored or demotivated agent, or having to explain their problem four times as they get passed around – or at least they shouldn’t do.
The bad news is that AI is likely to find ways to automate those jobs, too - as well as jobs that seem more complex. Doctors, lawyers and accountants are all seeing AI start to chip away at their livelihoods. But the good news is that this doesn’t happen overnight. If we can stop asking “what will happen to all these people?” and instead ask “what useful tasks can these people do instead?” then we will be making progress.
Failing that, I’m told there will be a lot of fruit and veg-picking jobs going from March next year.