UI to study automation impact on clerical work

Automation is changing everyone’s jobs, even secretaries and receptionists, office assistants and mailroom clerks.

But while numerous studies and think pieces have thought about how automation is affecting factory workers, engineers, or truck drivers, few have looked at how artificial intelligence will change clerical jobs.

A $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to researchers in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business and College of Engineering will start the process of answering those questions according to a release. The one-year grant from NSF’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier program will look at how artificial intelligence will change clerical jobs, including how many might be eliminated.

“We don’t often think about artificial intelligence and clerical work, the kind of filing and collating and administrative jobs that have been traditionally lower-paying jobs held by women,” says Beth Livingston, assistant professor of management & entrepreneurship in Tippie and a co-investigator on the grant. She says that many of those jobs are the entry point to careers for many people who don’t have college degrees or other credentials that have become in many cases key to career success, so learning more about how that work will be affected by technology is vital to keep those doors open.

She says automation could affect clerical jobs in any number of ways, from robots taking over filing jobs, answering phones or working reception desks, or machine learning advising managers on what decisions they should make.

“We want to understand the challenges that workers who have these jobs will have and learn about what they will need to do to adapt,” she says.

Researchers will focus on laying out a research agenda, looking at what existing research says and meeting with experts from across numerous fields to find out what questions they should ask and what directions to pursue. They will also conduct focus groups with clerical workers and ask how they think automation will impact their jobs and how concerned they are about that.

Ms. Livingston says researchers expect to create a body of research that will get ahead of the automation trend, so employers, policymakers, labor economists, and others will have a better sense of the impacts before they happen. She says that few people bothered to think about the impact that automation would have on manufacturing in advance, and the result was a significant level of economic and labor disruption that could have been mitigated if people had thought about how to minimize the damage.

She said that after one year, the researchers will seek a follow-up grant from NSF to answer the questions they’ve raised.