Robots need not apply: a future-proof guide to jobs in the automation era

By Adriana Hamacher

I’ll kid you not, it won’t be easy. Companies looking for fail-safe strategies for the coming years will need to create specialised work environments for jobs that don’t yet exist, in sectors that have not yet been created. A recent WEF study found that 60 per cent of the jobs that will be most in demand over the next decade have not even been invented yet. What’s more, according to some analysts, a large portion of core academic curriculum content is already out of date by the time students graduate. Skills instability is on the up in all industries, with many current roles hard to recruit for.

desktop robot

Image by Matthew Hurst/Flickr

It’s not helpful that the experts disagree on whether automation will have a devastating effect on human employment or not. What differs from previous waves of upheaval, many say, is that the pace of change is greater and its effect is broader; the automation era demands that displaced workers in routine, unskilled jobs graduate to non-routine, skilled jobs to stay ahead, instead of moving to similar-level jobs in other industries as before. Early indications suggest the employment market isn’t evolving fast enough to keep up with this change.

Others argue that automation increases productivity which leads to economic growth and new jobs. In the developed world, 3-D printing will drive companies to bring their manufacturing back to their home countries; self-driving vehicles will give people more time to consume goods and services, boosting demand. Humans and machines will also increasingly partner to great effect. To highlight an example: autopilot didn’t put pilots out of a job; instead it foreshadowed collaboration between human and machine on complex tasks. The increasing popularity of collaborative robots –cobots– is further evidence of this trend.

Capitalising on our humanity

It’s no surprise that, in a technological age, most new jobs will be in specialised areas: computing, mathematics, architecture and engineering. Technology also has a habit of obsoleting itself at an increasingly accelerated pace, so we need more people to create new tech, maintain it and help others use it. We need expertise in design, testing, implementing and refining smart automated systems. AI firms are said to be busy hiring poets to write dialogue for chatbots.

Some jobs are always likely to be better done by humans, especially those involving empathy or social interaction. Research by Deloitte, in the UK, finds that the future workforce will benefit from a “balance of technical skills and more general purpose skills such as problem solving skills, creativity, social skills, and emotional intelligence.” Jobs that fall into these categories – nurses, trainers, entertainers and more – will probably fare well in a more automated world. That’s not to say that AI and robots won’t eventually be capable of performing these roles (in some cases better than humans), but the recent resurgence of artisans in cities worldwide shows that just because something can be automated, it doesn’t mean it will be.

Survival of the most adaptable

But the reality is that in order to keep up-to-date with the latest technological advances, people will need to consistently retrain. Thus the future of work will soon become “the survival of the most adaptable”, to quote Paul Mason, emerging technologies director for Innovate UK. Holding a job for life will rarely be an option.

AI will also require big changes in the way education is delivered, just as the Industrial Revolution demanded in the 19th century. Industrialisation simultaneously transformed both the need for education and offered a model for providing it, prompting the introduction of universal state schools on a factory model. AI could well do the same.

But surfing the automation wave will likely demand more of humanity: a shakeup of our core beliefs surrounding work and its value may be long overdue. “In our fast-changing world where innovation and adaptation are more and more the critical success factors, another increasingly important measure of the effectiveness of an organisation is not just how productive it is but how intelligent it is”, writes Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.
“Intelligent organisations will be better able to adapt rapidly to changes in their environment, better able to innovatively take advantage of new possibilities, better able to be flexible and sense and respond to the world and not just do more efficiently what worked yesterday.”

HR’s shopping list for the automation era

This is a snapshot of what’s to come in the next five years, rather than the long-term (for that, see http://www.futuristspeaker.com/business-trends/55-jobs-of-the-future/):

  1. Machine Learning Specialist: Developing algorithms that can “learn” from or adapt to data and make predictions is a job likely to stay hot for some time. Lots of maths, preferably a PhD, needed.
  2. Interface Designer: Increasingly crucial as systems get smarter, robots become part of our lives and interfaces become more natural, incorporating gesture and speech.
  3. Nano-degree Developer: Traditional apprenticeships typically involve five to seven years of training, which doesn’t make sense if the skills you need are constantly changing. A nano-degree (perhaps in data science or website programming) can be completed in a few months, alongside a job.
  4. Industrial & Organisational Psychologist: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, says this sector, concerned with the study of human behaviour in organisations and the work place, is expected to grow by 53 per cent from 2010 to 2020. In fact, psychologists will be increasingly necessary to help us adapt to automation in every sphere, from trusting a self-driving car to counselling remote military operators.
  5. Neo-generalist: less about “doing all sorts of work”, and more about “connecting everything”. A manager, strategist or system designer.

 

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