Future of work: good news hard to find – but it’s certainly there

By John Helmer September 11, 2018

By Louise Maloney and John Helmer

According to a report into the future of skills employment in 2030 (a collaboration between Nesta, Pearson and Oxford Martin Business School) 70% of people are currently in jobs that have an uncertain future. This might sound unsettling, but it doesn’t mean these jobs will necessarily disappear. Roles could adapt to future demand through occupation redesign and training, and new jobs will be created (e.g. immersive experience designer), which are already being minted as we speak. In fact, the report predicts that, overall, the US and UK workforces will continue to grow through 2030.

However, there is an in-built problem for all commentators who attempt to take anything but the gloomiest view of future-of-work themes, a problem that tends to make any media coverage tip towards bleak and depressing. While it is relatively easy to pinpoint those jobs that are ripe for automation – and to provide lists that terrify parents, teachers and recent entrants to the workforce who might have spent years gaining professional qualifications now about to become obsolete – it is much harder to be at all certain about the future. There will undoubtedly be new jobs created by the tide of automation about to sweep through the workforce – we just don’t know what they will be yet.

AI is becoming increasingly advanced, and far more visible in the public realm as practical applications such as chatbots and self-driving cars enter mainstream consciousness. Most of us are now familiar with the concept of machine learning: computer programmes that have a degree of autonomy in how they go about solving particular problems. With continued development in AI and digital technology, 12 years from now the majority of professional roles are set to be quite different from what we see today. White-collar occupations are faced with large numbers of jobs being automated. Sectors such as HR management, procurement and supply-chain management as well as some finance roles will see more integration with digital technology.

The focus on which job sectors will be overtaken by AI technology seems to dominate public debate on the subject – and, naturally, with so much disruptive change it is easy to look at the growing role of technology in many occupations with trepidation rather than seeing the possibilities for growth. However, it isn’t simply that AI is taking jobs away, but that it is also changing jobs and creating new occupations.

For example, AI, robotics and analytics have become disciplines in themselves with data use and evaluation already critical elements to most professions. Contrary to popular belief perhaps, technology has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed so far. According to an article on the Educause Review website, automation is estimated to have eliminated 800,000 lower-skilled jobs while simultaneously creating 3.5 million higher-skilled ones.

As occupations are remodelled, the skills required to operate in the digital age are rapidly diversifying and changing too. This means that there is a growing skills gap created by these new professions. Consequently, expanding job sectors will require many people to be upskilled and/or retrained, and this is becoming a significant issue in the current wave of technological growth.

Encouragingly, for readers of this blog, the Nesta, Pearson and Oxford Martin Business School report mentioned above found that in the USA, occupations in the field of training and development are set to see an increase in demand. Perhaps this reflects attitudes towards continuous professional development but also the need for effective skills training. Running parallel to arguments for knowledge-based skills, there is now greater emphasis on social skills and cognitive capabilities – between 1980 and 2012 jobs that require high social skills grew by almost 10% in the USA, and this trend looks set to continue.

This suggests that despite advances in AI there are areas in which humans have higher competency – AI is not capable of ethical or moral thinking, for example – and such thinking is essential for business. Occupations that draw on interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, such as labour-relations specialist and management-and-development specialist, also maintain a strong employment outlook.

In education circles there are debates surrounding knowledge-based skills vs. soft skills. With the future of many jobs so uncertain, more businesses are recognising that transferable skills are necessary in order to remain adaptive and receptive to change. The Pearson report found that in both the USA and the UK cognitive skills, such as fluency of ideas, learning strategies and active learning, feature significantly in predictions of future skills demands. The UK also sees an emphasis on judgement and decision-making capabilities.

A key finding in the report, however, is that unless organisational change or job redesign is achieved, the productivity gains from these skills will be limited. Stagnation in productivity growth, despite increases in research-and-development efforts, perhaps reflects that organisations are falling behind the pace of technological change. If education and training respond to occupational changes then opportunities for growth are possible. Investment in skills must be at the centre of any long-term strategy, particularly for firms involved with digital technology. Learning professionals will have to respond to the evidence that the situation is undergoing a seismic shift, and educators and businesses will be required to adapt their policies if they want to maintain a workforce skilled for a world augmented by technology.

The workplace is changing to such a degree and at such a pace that educators are finding it hard to anticipate requirements for learning, and, with the future of 70% of occupations uncertain, there is a need to develop relevant knowledge as well as transferable skills.

Against this background, L&D and HR professionals perhaps need to ask themselves two questions:

  • Are we putting enough focus on forecasting the skills that are going to be important to future occupations?
  • How will the changes that AI and digital technology are driving change the substance of what organisational learners will need to learn – and the style in which they will need to learn it?



Djumalieva, Jyldyz, and Cath Sleeman (2017). Nesta. ‘What Digital Skills Do You Really Need? Exploring employer demand for digital skills and occupation growth prospects’ https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/which-digital-skills-do-you-really-need/

Bakhshi, Hasan, Jonathan M. Downing, Michael A. Osborne and Philippe Schneider (2017). Pearson. ‘The Future of Skills Employment in 2030’ https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/the-future-of-skills-employment-in-2030/

Oblinger, Diana (2018). Educause Review. ‘Smart Machines and Human Expertise: Challenges for Higher Education’ https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/8/smart-machines-and-human-expertise-challenges-for-higher-education

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