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As software performs routine tasks once done by humans, what’s left for an office worker to do?
“What’s traditionally been called those soft skills are extremely important,” said Sharon Blanchard. “Flexibility and teamwork is still real big. The skills with project management are really encouraged, and they’re being used in this type of position.”
Blanchard, an instructor and coordinator of Kirkwood Community College’s business and administrative management program, said expertise in customer service, communications and office procedures becomes the focus of those jobs as clerical duties are automated.
Researchers at the University of Iowa are about to take a closer look at that transition.
“How many times have you been on the phone with customer service and you’re interacting with a bot?” asked Beth Livingston.
“That also means there are fewer workers that are doing that work.”
Livingston, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, is one of a team of investigators that’s among the first to look at how artificial intelligence could affect the future of clerical work — long an entry to the middle class for many workers.
“This issue is incredibly important, both for end users of the product and how employees who work there feel about it,” Livingston said.
“These experiences are important to capture.”
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recognized that importance in September when it issued a report finding the biggest declines in employment over the next 10 years will come in office and administrative support, sales and retail, and production.
The BLS predicts office and administrative employment to drop by about 3 percent from the present 2.9 million jobs.
“These three groups make up the core of the U.S. middle class,” BLS Division Chief Michael Wolf noted in issuing the report.
“A lot of these jobs are predominantly women-dominated professions, and often jobs held by women who don’t have college degrees,” Livingston said.
“This is absolutely about equity.”
“Clerical work” can cover a range of responsibilities that may change daily with an employer’s needs.
Clerks may answer phones and file documents, enter data in a software program, and use copiers, scanners, and other office equipment — all tasks that AI is rapidly developing to perform.
“Office workers a lot of times is considered just paperwork, but that’s not true,” said Priyadarshini Pennathur, associate professor in the department of industrial systems and engineering and a co-investigator on the study.
“There’s also significant cognizant work. They have to coordinate a lot of things, they have to do a lot of work in the background that maybe we don’t see.”
What was once clerical work has taken on new information technology duties as workplaces have automated.
“I doubt there are many clerical workers who say, ‘I am in STEM,’” Livingston said. “But you’re working along with artificial intelligence. You’re communicating with customers using technology.
“This is an opportunity to think about not only how those workplaces will look like, but also how those employees now and in the future will react to that.”
Pennathur first talked to Livingston last winter about investigating the future of office work. A specialist in systems engineering and cognitive engineering, she knew the topic calls for a multi-disciplinary approach.
“It has implications for training, for future education,” Pennathur said. “We are bringing together experts from those fields.”
“As a social scientist, I’m always thinking about the how the pace of progress and technological advances will affect people,” Livingston said.
“The only way that we actually can manage this process is by thinking cross-disciplinary about it.”
Blanchard said Kirkwood students entering the field still have plenty of opportunities.
“We encourage them to look at something a little beyond an entry-level position,” she said. “They should probably be paid and find a position that will really challenge them. We have graduates that have started in these positions and they have grown into different parts of the organization, because they have these skills.”
Blanchard meets twice a year with employers and hiring professionals to stay current with their needs. In addition to management skills and adaptability, certifications in Microsoft Office and similar workplace tools are valued, with social media and marketing duties taking larger roles for many.
“My students are the ones who are going out and doing this,” she said. “If you look at things even 10 years ago, there’s a lot that’s changed.”
The University of Iowa team landed a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant to fund the initial stages of its work. Over the next year they’ll survey earlier research and meet with experts in several fields to identify what questions to ask and what directions they might lead.
The plan is to seek a follow-up grant to answer some of those questions.
“We have the opportunity to get at the forefront of this really important topic and the potential impact it can have on employees,” Livingston said.
“The main goal if this particular grant is for us to come together and shape an agenda on this topic,” Pennathur said.
“We’ll come up with important research questions we would take and go forward.”
Those questions will include the effects of 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on work, including work-from-home.
“COVID in so many ways has been a traumatic shock to the labor market,” Livingston said.
“I think we’ll start to see some stability come out of it, but it creates an environment for a lot more innovation. We’re in the middle of it.”