Human Skills in the Future of Work

We have dealt with job displacement due to machines and automation for centuries.  At every turn, fear over jobs, income and skills persist. We can’t avoid it. Clothing makers were replaced by the loom.  Bank tellers were replaced by ATMs. Warehouse workers are being replaced by robotic arms. Accountants are being replaced by software.  At every turn, jobs are lost. We live in fear that at the next turn, we’ll be permanently displaced and at the mercy of the robotic overlords.

In reality, at every turn, we have lost jobs.  At every turn, we’ve also created new jobs for the new economy.  The IT industry that has enriched the middle class (well, and the 1%) is impossible without the displacement of others.  The globalization of the service industry and the development of service and technical offshore jobs in India and other countries is impossible without the displacement of others.  No matter what has happened, new jobs have been created, often in greater quantity than what previously existed.

The question is:  what are the jobs that will be imminently created, and how do we start upskilling now?  I won’t pretend that I have any idea, what those jobs are, we have incredibly good information into what to avoid.  However, as robotics, AI and machine learning continues to progress, what roles might be viable for bots will expand and evolve.  What we know now is that RPA’s “low hanging fruit” is in highly rules based transactions.

While I haven’t seen this proven out yet, I’m of the opinion that if work could be outsourced and offshored, it is now the object of near term robotics.  Successfully outsourced business processes pretty much had to go through an implementation process of detailed documentation of process rules and protocols.  Those rules, assuming not qualitative, could be easily portable to RPA. Other, low value work in auditing data or simple transactions can also be automated. These are generally low skill roles and not the high value work.

Machine learning and cognition will continue to improve transaction processing in the future.  As bots continue to learn transaction processing will get better and tier 2 and 3 decisions will depart the realm of human interpretation and into the land of the bots.  These are still transactions, and not the high value strategy and planning work. We are starting to see machines participate in forecasting by applying ML to historical trending to improve the speed of the forecasting activity and the accuracy of the forecast.  We’re starting to see machines automating legal forms, and hearing about machines that can diagnose health issues to help physicians look at data they might otherwise miss.

So this leads to the question, what will the skills be that keep humans employed long into the future?  What we can project is that design thinking, creativity, innovation seem to be protected skills. Things that need collaboration and interpretative synthesis can also be protected.  So this goes back to how we are learning through university and after that in the workplace. Agile, “micro degree” attainment over time in the workplace and an emphasis on soft skills may aid in future proofing of skills.  

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