Future Proof Kids

The NPR show Marketplace did a story this year titled “Robot Proof Jobs”. The series looked at the idea that technological advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics will eventually replace a large segment of jobs previously thought to be “safe” from automation. This got me thinking about the current role of education and what activities our students can do today to start on a path toward “future proof jobs”, or careers that will be difficult to automate.

A study on workplace automation by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that 50% of all work activity can be automated and that a surprising amount of white collar work can be automated including the tasks of data collection and processing. These two items alone amount for a large portion of white-collar work activity - think working with spreadsheets to gather and organize company data. Other types of work ripe for automation are not surprising such as repetitive physical work. This is what we would historically think of with robotics on a factory floor or agriculture equipment, for example. The white-collar job automation is what is most alarming to people because these are what we might consider a large portion of corporate middle-class knowledge workers. Ironically, low skilled physical work in changing environments is safe from automation. An example of this is tree pruning or physical work that is different enough each day that it is difficult to automate. If we think about the workforce in terms of high skill, middle skill, and low skill requirements, it is the middle skilled workers who appear to be in the most danger of losing their jobs moving forward, thus killing middle income. How can we help our kids today to be prepared for this environment?

Technology both creates jobs and eliminates jobs. This is an easily provable historical trend and is important to keep in mind (and it will be a topic of a future blog post). Forrester Research estimates that automation will actually create 15 million jobs. Good news! However, they also estimate that 24 million jobs will be lost for a net loss of nearly nine million jobs. As old jobs are eliminated, new opportunities arise that combine new technologies and tools. Imagination and creativity will be needed to combine these tools and invent those future jobs. Also note that imagination and creativity are the very things that cannot be automated. In the face of technology changes, it will be important to be a lifelong learner because careers will be fluid and constantly changing. The McKinsey study looked at various careers and rated them as to whether they are in danger of being automated. Computer and Information Research Scientist as a job category rated low on the automation scale, most likely because the field is constantly changing. Other creative pursuits in technology like Graphic Design are rated low, for example. Civil Engineer is rated a low candidate for automation because while mathematically the job is automatable, it requires adaptability in a constantly changing environment. No two civil engineering jobs are the same.

Students will need to combine technology, creativity, and imagination in the future workforce to remain relevant and employable. These skills are not possible to automate. By starting now to create with technology at a young age, through coding classes, digital artwork and animation, video and sound production, robotics and microcontrollers, 3D printing and making, or any combination, we are starting them down the right path. The good news is that this type of work is rewarding higher level work and will help them find a satisfying career.

Marketplace story - Robot Proof Jobs

Blog photo credit: Matthew Henry

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