No one would have believed at the dawn of this new century that the staffing industry was being scrutinized, keenly and closely, by intelligences far advanced; that as industry professionals busied themselves about various routine concerns, their company processes were being studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might examine the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

With infinite complacency, the industry went about its affairs, serene in its assurance of continued prosperity. No one gave a thought to technology as a source of industry competition — or thought of it, only to dismiss the idea as impossible or improbable. Yet software engineers, programmers and venture capitalists, vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this industry with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

With apologies to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, that is, I think, how many staffing industry executives at least initially saw the advent of internet-enabled staffing automation — job boards, VMS, etc. — in what had always been, decidedly and proudly, a “people business.” But this infinitely agile industry has since been warming up to automation, in the continued and everlasting service to people, and it’s starting to show.

SIA has begun tracking industry automation, in terms of tasks that workers and staffing buyers are able to accomplish through technology, i.e., without the active assistance of the internal staff of staffing firms. So far, automation seems to be more common on the worker side than the buyer side, but it’s clear that much is being done for both.

Trends in process automation. In our latest staffing firm survey, we asked industry executives: “Which of the following does your firm’s current technology (website or app) enable temporary and permanent candidates to do mostly without the aid of a human?” A similar question was asked regarding what staffing buyers could do.

On the worker side, the most common automation features were: “submit résumé document” at 92%, “view available jobs,” at 86%, and “apply for available jobs” at 85%. The least common automation features were: “indicate desired job type and be automatically accepted for temp assignments” at 16%, “be pre-qualified and select and confirm specific assignments or shifts at will” at 15%, and “rate client” at 14%. Note that the least-offered feature, “rate client,” is also the one temporary workers separately reported they most want added.

On the staffing buyer side, the most common automation features were: “view billing information” at 56% and “create descriptions for available positions/ request staff” at 51%. No other feature scored more than 31% share. The least common automation features were: “assign temporary worker shifts” at 17%, “communicate directly with temporary workers via messaging system” at 17%, “view work samples from temporary workers” at 14%, and “have temporary workers auto-assigned to shifts or assignments” at 10%.

Which firms are in the lead? Large staffing firms, those of greater than $100 million in revenue, are noteworthy for both the highest automation propensity and highest 2017-2018 increase in automation propensity. Such firms reported automating a median 71% of selected worker processes, up three percentage points from 2017, and reported automating a median 31% of selected buyer processes, up five percentage points from 2017. Likely, this high level of automation reflects the advantages of scale, as larger firms have the volume of activity to make investments in automation worthwhile.

To a lesser degree, commercial staffing firms are also relatively active in automation. Across selected worker processes, a median 63% of commercial staffing firms reported process automation, up two percentage points from 2017; and across selected buyer processes, a median 23% of commercial staffing firms reported process automation, up five percentage points from 2017.

The human cloud is now us. When dedicated human-cloud staffing firms such as Elance and oDesk first emerged, the industry was caught off guard and reacted with a degree of surprise and — there is no other word for it — horror. Today, according to our staffing firm survey report, only 9% of staffing executives are unaware of such developments and many industry firms are getting involved. The percent of traditional staffing firms currently partnering with or investing in human cloud firms rose to 14% in 2018 from 5% in 2012. Additionally, the share of staffing firms “considering building, acquiring or partnering over the next two years” increased to 30% in 2018 from 9% in 2012.

The human-cloud companies that staffing firms invest in are primarily business- related online staffing companies, but some have also become involved in consumer-related online staffing and freelancer management systems. Meanwhile, the large and established human cloud companies themselves, which once definitively saw their services as part of the technology sector, have gradually become aware that they are indeed staffing firms, with the same opportunities and challenges, so much so that they are among the leading participants in the SIA conference on this sector, “Collaboration In the Gig Economy.”

Technology is only as smart as the user. Automation may well be the end game of staffing. And yet, the saying that staffing is a “people business” still holds true. Yes, new technological tools are being created, but it’s people who will be using them. Bridging that machine/ human gap is where training comes in — and not just for internal staff.

As reported in the “2018 Temporary Worker Survey,” SIA surveyed temporary workers about their awareness and use of staffing firms’ websites and apps. Fewer than half of those surveyed said they got much use out of them or were even fully aware of them, something of a tragedy when you think how much staffing firms have invested to get these technologies right.

But there was a bright side to the results. Among those who had been given a website/app demo, awareness and use doubled. Only 40% of temporary workers said their firm had offered them such a demo. Taking candidates through a formal process of explaining the tools they are being offered seems like a best practice.

The importance of demos was further underscored in an open-ended question in which temporary workers were asked for feedback regarding staffing firm websites/apps. One of the recurring themes in responses was the desire to have such tools explained. A few of the reported comments suffice to make the point: “I wasn’t told much about the website. I suggest that new consultants be made aware of the site and its utility,” “Never used it, and didn’t know it existed,” “What? They have a website? Wadda you know.”

The rise of the machine. Computers and the internet have enabled automation of routine processes on a scale previously unimaginable, and the effects are yet to fully play out. Automation will touch not only the internal processes of the staffing industry but the skills and markets the industry serves. SIA research indicates that 63% of all temporary agency jobs are at high risk of computerization over the next 10 to 20 years.

All that may sound grim, but the reality is not that this doom is about to come to a flood; rather, the flood has already started, and the industry has been surfing it successfully.