PHL to retool workers to counter threat of AI

BusinessMirror | By Elijah Felice Rosales  – 

The government will recalibrate the country’s work force in the business-process outsourcing (BPO) sector to turn the threat posed by the entry of artificial intelligence (AI) into an opportunity for employment generation.

In a news briefing on Wednesday, Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez admitted the introduction of AI into BPOs is a threat to laborers employed in the multimillion-dollar sector. He said the government is looking at possible ways to address it, and the most available right now is the retraining of contact- center agents.

“Business developments, AI, robotics and any new developments taking place are posing a threat to this industry. Some are saying that practically about half in the BPO industry might get laid off because of these developments, especially in the AI technology,” Lopez said.

As a dollar-generating industry, Lopez said it is a given for BPO firms to look for ways to make their operations more efficient. With the entry of AI—a technology that can accomplish basic tasks, such as logging in information, setting schedules, and copying and pasting files—BPO firms are keen on acquiring this system to improve their capacity and efficiency.

However, this comes with a price. Once AI takes over tons of tasks in the sector, it is expected to displace workers in BPOs, as most of the work they have been doing can now be completed by the technology.

With this, Lopez said the Departments of Trade and Industry and of Information and Communications Technology are working on recalibrating the would-be displaced workers.

“Instead of AI replacing jobs in the BPO industry, which is estimated to affect half of the 1.3 million jobs in the sector, the workers will be trained and upskilled to make use of AI-enabled systems. Basically, it’s making the AI system become the solution to the problem,” he explained.

Under the solution proposed by the two agencies, the government will employ impact sourcing by reallocating workers into different levels of labor. This will reportedly allow 482,000 unskilled workers to handle low-skilled work; 525,000 low-skilled workers to perform mid-skilled work; and 309,000 mid-skilled workers to do high-level work.

“The Philippines is the first country to launch this kind of initiative. Instead of looking at AI as a threat to the BPO industry, the Duterte administration is using AI to provide more opportunities for inclusive growth. We will train and enable our work force, regardless of their background and experience, to use AI to perform smarter and complete difficult tasks, and help them move up the value chain. The training will make them employable, operating even in the rural areas to make this program truly inclusive,” Lopez said.

The trade chief cited as example contact center agents. Under the plan, Lopez said they will be retooled to give them a different skill set, all the while making them still useful for the firm.

“The entire industry market is worth $262 billion and only $79 billion is outsourced. With the government’s initiative and push for innovation, we will be able to benefit from this market to open up more job opportunities for the Filipinos, which is the priority of President Duterte,” Lopez said.

The BPO industry is one of the country’s major economic drivers, as it has provided 18 million employment opportunities nationwide over the past 15 years. However, the sector is now moving forward with the entry of automation in business operations.