Losing Jobs to Automation: How To Stay Ahead

Losing Jobs to Automation: How To Stay Ahead

Throughout time, new replacement jobs have outpaced the number of destroyed jobs. Are todays’ worries fundamentally different and valid? And if they are, what can you do to avoid being left behind?

Nowadays, with increasing advances in automation and AI, job security is diminishing in what was previously securely in the human domain. The latest report by the World Economic Forum, titled “The Future of Jobs” raises concern and points out that “automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers”, accelerating the “arrival of the future of work.”

Table of Contents

  1. How many jobs will be lost to automation?
  2. Is there a reason for concern?
  3. A headhunter's take
  4. How to not be left behind: retraining
  5. Crucial skills to develop
  6. Final thoughts

How many jobs will be lost to automation?

In 2013 Oxford researchers estimated the number of US jobs at risk of computerization at 47%. An alarming figure, the report was widely cited, including in reports by the White House.

However, the keyword is “at-risk”. The researchers estimated the number of jobs that could be automated given enough time, resources, and not taking into account whether it makes business sense to do so. A recent report by McKinsey does take this into account and estimates that 27% of jobs will be lost.

On the other hand, automation is more likely to replace jobs than destroy them. McKinsey predicts that 32 million workers will stay in the same occupation and a further 2.2 million will stay in the same occupational category, out of a total of 49.1 million jobs likely to be displaced by automation. This means that 14.9 million people “will have to find a new line of work”, accounting for 9% of jobs.

Is there a reason for concern?

Similar worries have been raised for decades. Looking at the decrease in farming jobs in the United States, where a century ago they comprised 31% of jobs whereas they are less than 1% today, it can be argued that they were valid; jobs were lost. But we have moved from farming to manufacturing to ‘white-collar’ jobs, and along came net improvements in the average person’s quality of life. Much driven by automation. Despite disruptions and recessions, the US has not seen a chronic, structural shortage of jobs. Worrying assumes that the next wave of automation will be fundamentally different, forgetting that new technology creates new markets and new jobs.

“The Future of Jobs” report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) highlights that the number of ‘jobs of tomorrow’ that will be created surpasses the number of jobs destroyed. Even though “job creation is slowing while job destruction accelerates”, they estimate that by 2025, 97 million new roles will emerge, shadowing the estimated 85 million jobs that may be displaced.

Companies are not entirely looking to make wide use of layoffs and “use automation-based labor savings as a core workforce strategy.” According to the “Future of Jobs”, companies hope to redeploy nearly half of the employees displaced by technological automation and augmentation.

However, that is not to say that millions of people have not been displaced. The WEF points out that “the most valuable company in the U.S. in 1964, AT&T, had 758,611 employees; the most valuable company today, Apple, has around 137,000 employees.” More profit is being shared among fewer employees, and shareholders are taking a bigger share. The pandemic has accelerated the pace of disruption and technological adoption, with some economists predicting that 42 percent of jobs that were lost at the beginning of the pandemic would not be coming back. Standardized, mass manufacturing replaced highly skilled craftsmen in the 21st century. Today, lower-paid, less-skilled workers are bearing the brunt of it.

A headhunter's take

We spoke to headhunting agency P.A. & Partners, and out of the 25 recruitment processes they currently have open, 17 are in tech or require significant knowledge of it. “We have seen an IT manager that is now obsolete – his industry has moved on and he doesn’t know how to integrate industrial automation with AI.” “We are also headhunting doctors who must know data science.”

“The concerns [about losing jobs to automation] are valid” Adriana tells us, “and the pandemic has only brought forth what was going to happen anyway, but at a much faster pace.”

“However, the automation of repetitive tasks will unlock more time to produce more valuable results, allowing people to be more curious and focus on what interests them, with work being much more exploratory instead of mechanical.”

How to not be left behind: retraining

“There is room for measured optimism in the data”, says the World Economic Forum. “The bounty of technological innovation which defines our current era can be leveraged to unleash human potential.” Upskilling and reskilling can be done en-masse, unlike ever before. 

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution says that “the real problem isn’t so much a robot apocalypse.” While people needing retraining is nothing new, it is hard to do so “in an accessible, efficient, well-informed, data-driven way.” WEF raises concerns that the US is spending less than half of what it did 30 years ago, relative to GDP, on educating, retraining, and upskilling its workforce. “Supporting workers will require global, regional, and national public-private collaboration at an unprecedented scale and speed” says the WEF.

There are a plethora of websites that offer courses and training for free, only requiring payment for a certificate. Harvard has over 100 courses for free, MIT has OpenCourseware and edX provides free access to over 2,800 courses by more than 160 member universities, having over 100 million enrollments across them.

The pandemic and its aftershocks had the biggest effect on communities that were already at a disadvantage. And even with the courses being free, the cost of admission is time, which could well be spent working and addressing immediate needs, computer and internet access, and knowledge of their existence, as well as which of the thousands of courses to prioritize.

Crucial skills to develop

“Nowadays,” Adriana De Souza, author of the essay “Digital Natives in command: nothing will ever be the same” - awarded by the World Federation of People Management Association - says, “one of the best non-technical skills to have is knowing how to integrate and develop people.” As automation and technology advance, the work that is needed is more human and more complex.

The big question is “how easily can you adapt?” She says the most successful employees will be those that are “cognitively flexible”, those that can unlearn what has been learned and have the capacity to reinvent themselves to have the skills that are in demand. “And on the bright side, 9 out of 25 roles we are recruiting for do not require formal education. And I can only see this trend accelerating.”

According to the World Economic Forum, around 40% of workers will require reskilling of 6 months or less. In stark contrast to 2018, “94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job”. The figure stood at 65% just a couple of years ago.

The top skills and skill groups to develop, as mentioned in WEF’s report, include:

  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Problem-solving
  • Self-management:

  • Active learning

  • Resilience
  • Stress tolerance
  • Flexibility

Final thoughts

The rate of disruption is increasing, and machines are predicted to spend the same amount of time working as humans by 2025. This accelerated rate of change can be seen as a threat or an opportunity. Unfortunately, people, especially those in already vulnerable positions, are at the highest risk of being left behind. Personal commitment to self-management and developing key skills can carry workers through to the next era.

In a similar vein to the massive shifts the railroad brought in only 5 years, the new age of working is approaching faster than ever predicted. It took half a century for conditions to be right for the revolution the railroad brought, and developments in the late 20th and early 21st century have primed the gunpowder for today’s revolution. And along came a new mental geography where the world shrunk, new ways of working, and previous mind-boggling realities became commonplace.

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