How Robots are Forcing an Employee-Ownership Rethink

At least according to research just published by financial services firm UniCredit, which says granting employees direct ownership of their businesses may be necessary to combat rising income inequality created by an explosion in robot use.

Robots promise to make our lives easier by performing tasks we’d rather not. The problem is that the people who stand to benefit most are highly-educated and tech-savvy professionals. Unskilled workers, meanwhile, are at far greater risk of having their jobs replaced by machines, widening the gap between rich and poor.

“One of the most promising solutions to the long-term challenges posed by machines substituting for labor is employee ownership, which allows all workers to earn income from labor as well as from capital.”

UniCredit says offering better-quality education to help students “robot-proof” their careers is one solution, though it argues more will need to be done.

“One of the most promising solutions to the long-term challenges posed by machines substituting for labor is employee ownership, which allows all workers to earn income from labor as well as from capital,” the report’s author said.

Such a solution may seem politically radical at first glance. But the implications for CEOs could be positive—so long as there’s room left for them to reward outperformance and innovation.

And the concept of employee ownership, of course, is nothing new. Many companies in the U.S. and elsewhere utilize stock ownership plans to more closely align the interests of employees with the interests of management. The obvious benefit here is increased staff engagement—something that’s currently lacking in a lot of American workplaces.

The general public isn’t averse to the idea of more employee ownership, either.

A survey released last month by Public Policy Polling found that 68% of Americans support the concept of companies being owned by their employees, while 60% favored legislation making it easier for employees to own their companies.

How long it takes for robots to pressure business leaders and lawmakers to more seriously consider the concept of employee ownership ultimately depends on how quickly robots evolve.

Last year, the International Federation of Robotics said the worldwide stock of industrial robots hit a new record high in 2014 of 1.5 million units. Most of them could be found in the automotive and electronic industries.

The IFR projects the pace of robot installations will continue to grow at a double-digit rate over the next few years.

“While these numbers, as all forecasts, have to be taken with a pinch of salt, there can be no doubt that the automation of various industries will continue,” UniCredit said.

“And judging from the experience over the past several years, demand for industrial robots will more likely than not expand at an accelerating pace–not only to 2018 but beyond.”

Ross Kelly :Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.