​Westpac adopted 'workforce revolution' to combat technology-based job losses

Although Westpac has laid-off about 1,000 staff over the past 24 months, its CEO has called the hype of technology replacing jobs 'overdone'.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

About 1,000 staff have been let go from Westpac over the past two years as a result of technological advancements such as automation; however CEO Brian Hartzer sees a silver lining, telling a House of Representatives committee his bank is also witnessing new jobs being created as a result of technology.

"It's the case that customers are voting with their feet and with their plastic cards, and they're walking into branches less often to make cash deposits and cash withdrawals. So our branch network size and staffing reflects that," Hartzer told the Standing Committee on Economics on Wednesday.

Hartzer conceded there was no question that technology is having an effect on jobs, but called the hype around the topic "overdone".

"I personally think the impact of technology will be more about aspects of jobs than about whole jobs. A lot of the technology is really about replacing the parts of people's jobs they don't really enjoy -- you know, keying data in or performing manual tasks," he explained.

As a result, Westpac has introduced a "workforce revolution", which Hartzer explained is a combination of projects that look at the skill set of the bank's staff. It also provides leadership training and skills development -- as well as cultural development -- to prepare for technological change.

"We recognise it is a real issue for the company and we have been spending a lot more money investing in our people's skills and in the ability to create work that's more flexible and to help people move around and try different things," Hartzer said. "I think the best investment we and other businesses can make is giving our people more skills so they can adapt as jobs evolve."

Also facing the committee was ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott, who called it an "evolving situation".

"The reality is that, throughout the history of the financial sector, new technology impacts the nature of work. That sometimes changes the number of people we have, but, more importantly, it changes what we ask them to do," he explained.

"There's a lot of benefits from using data, artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning to get better customer outcomes -- faster, better, cheaper solutions for customers -- that will have an impact on the resourcing that we bring to the table. Our job is to make sure that we manage those transitions responsibly."

A recent probe of 160 Australian CFOs echoed similar remarks to those made by Hartzer and Elliott. The Robert Half-sponsored study reported that more finance jobs will be created than replaced by automation, despite the undercurrent of fear about its impact on jobs.

Speaking at the AWS Summit in Sydney in April, Hartzer touted his bank as being a "200-year-old startup".

"Our purpose from the founding back in 1817 was to help the fledgling economy of New South Wales to thrive. As a result, we issued the first bank note, when there was no paper currency in the economy. Before long, we had built smelting rooms with the latest technology of the time at the back of our branches, and we were melting nuggets down and turning them into gold bars," he explained.

"Each of these things seems obvious today, but they were a big deal at the time. What they reflected was the recognition that society was changing, and that if we were going to keep up with the expectations of society and of our customers then we needed to lead by adapting.

"As we enter our third century of business, this need to adapt has never been more acute."

During the House of Representatives probe, Hartzer also briefly touched on his bank's open-data position, with the government this month kicking off a review into open banking in Australia.

"We've had an enormous number of requests to us for data and improvements in technology and systems," he explained.

On the topic of protecting customers' data and protection from fraud, Hartzer highlighted a personal interest in ensuring this is kept safe.

"A couple of weeks ago, I had a long conversation with my mother, in the US, who is 75 years old, because her personal details were compromised in the Equifax breach," he explained.

"This is a genie that is very hard to put back in the bottle once it gets out."

Earlier this year, it was revealed that an executive from competing bank ANZ had their driver's licence obtained by an unauthorised party, with that party applying -- successfully -- for a AU$30,000 loan with Westpac.

"What it highlights is that the risk of identity fraud and cybersecurity is a very serious issue, and we're all paying a tremendous amount of attention to it," Hartzer told the committee.

"What it exposes is that the criminals are continually trying to find ways to defraud us. We have to continue to invest in improving controls around that.

"I'm confident that there's plenty of attention on making sure that our customers' data is secure."

Westpac reported interim cash profit of AU$4.02 billion for the six months ended March 31, 2017, up 3 percent from the AU$3.9 billion reported in the previous corresponding period.


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