Over the past few years, debate around the impending impacts of technology, particularly robotics and artificial intelligence, has left many wondering what work will be left for humans to do and what skills they will need to ensure they are employable. To further complicate the scenario, these questions come at a time when many of the world’s economies are grappling with already rising levels of unemployment, underemployment and stagnant wage growth.
As we know, and history shows us, disruption to work and the workforce is nothing new. It’s been happening for hundreds of years and is often driven by the emergence of new technology that, even in its simplest form, makes tasks easier, more efficient, and operations more productive overall. The result is inevitably a change to the old task and often a rationalising of the human input required.
As I said, it’s nothing new, but these days it’s potentially different. In December last year, on a McKinsey Global Institute podcast, James Manyika, chairman and director of the McKinsey Global Institute, broached the topic of the future of work discussing the findings of a McKinsey report titled, Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation. When asked why there’s an apparent increase in the unease amongst people when it comes to the potential for work to be automated, Manyika puts forward two possible reasons.
Firstly, he suggests that the sheer pace in which technology is progressing is somewhat unnerving for people considering the leaps and bounds seen in even the past few years across artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems. The second reason Manyika points to is the fact that with this new technology, the work that’s moving to machines may be different to that of years gone by.
This sentiment is shared by Arntz, Gregory and Zierahn (2016) who said that advances in technology like computing power, robotics and artificial intelligence were redefining the human capabilities that machines could undertake, and that the substitutability of humans by machines had reached unprecedented levels. “The underlying notion is that automation and digitalisation are increasingly penetrating the domain of tasks that until recently used to be genuinely human such as reasoning, sensing and deciding.”
Not surprisingly, this is where those areas of concern around the loss of work link to. But it’s important to realise that there’s a reasonable expectation that while some jobs will be automated in the future, there are still many facets in many jobs that cannot be. And as with previous changes in production and the labour force, new jobs will emerge to better support modern business structures, meaning it’s more likely that we will see jobs evolve and change rather than simply disappear.
It’s an insight shared by the McKinsey report that says by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers globally will need to switch occupational categories. The same report stresses that all workers will need to adapt as increasingly capable machines emerge. There’s no doubt that for those workers to evolve and adapt there will be a requirement of further training and higher educational attainment. In Australia, a recent CEDA report estimates that up to five million jobs could disappear by 2030 due to technological advancements, meaning a significant portion of the workforce will need to reskill or upskill to switch to the new jobs and industries that will emerge.
With such a clear need for ongoing job training and education the onus is shifting back to us to ensure we are evolving our current approach.
From a tertiary education standpoint, while we see university degrees still being relevant as a method of developing deep expertise in a field, curriculums will need to be modified to add emphasis on the development of broader technical skills and soft skills, and multidisciplinary knowledge.
Across the board new ways of learning and credentialing will become increasingly important for upskilling. Providers will need to create programs that can quickly and efficiently reskill and credential large segments of the labour force.
There’s no doubt tomorrow’s workforce will look and function vastly different to today’s, but it’s a challenge that we shouldn’t be confronted by. In reality, generation after generation has always faced this challenge. The only difference is that it’s all happening at a greater pace – but with our foresight and focus we should carry a sense of optimism for the future.
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