We need to retrain workers—not rescrew them

To automation-proof today’s workforces, we need to teach them the tools that will protect them, not just apply a band-aid solution for the first cut.
To automation-proof today’s workforces, we need to teach them the tools that will protect them, not just apply a band-aid solution for the first cut.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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Who knows what traumas may come in the next 20 years as AI and automation sweep through industries. Will millions of truck drivers and factory workers lose their jobs? Will accountants and lawyers be decimated?

Most commentators predict big job cuts, ever shorter job tenure, more project-based working, and greater insecurity. But what’s striking about their forecasts is that they’re almost identical to the ones made by futurists ever since the 1960s, when magazine features on the rise of the robots became a staple.

Those forecasts turned out to be almost entirely wrong. Employment levels often rose rather than fell. Job tenure remained roughly constant.

It’s possible this time will be different. But when we go about automation-proofing today’s workforces, we need to be careful to teach them the tools that will protect them in industrial revolutions to come, not just apply a band-aid solution for the first cut.

Labor markets change remorselessly, but quite slowly. Many commentators wildly exaggerate how fast driverless cars will put taxis out of business, or that doctors will be replaced by AI diagnostics. They’re not helped by widely circulated factoids—such as that the majority of jobs that children will grow up to do don’t exist today, or that one in 10 jobs disappears every year—that don’t stand up to a minute’s analysis.

One reason for error is the lack of account for the rise of hybrid jobs—combinations of tasks and skills that automation won’t impact. Although automation may replace parts of many jobs, they won’t replace all of them. For example, even if convoys of robotrucks take over our motorways, some truck drivers will still be needed to drive through cities for last-mile delivery—at least for the foreseeable future. (Our study on future skills in the US and UK provides far more detail on this.)

Technology also has counter-intuitive effects. As tasks are automated, demand shifts toward more labor-intensive, less technology-intensive roles. A more digitized economy creates far more new jobs for bartenders, recreational therapists, and teachers than it does for VR programmers. A surprising result that comes from our analysis of digital skills and jobs is that many digitally intensive jobs, like coding, are likely to shrink as automation hits them, too.

This more detailed analysis of digital skills in the future also shows quite surprising patterns in terms of which digital skills are likely to grow or shrink in demand:

Five promising digital skills:

  1. Animation
  2. Multimedia production
  3. Design in engineering
  4. Building and maintain IT systems and networks
  5. Research and quantitative data analysis

Five of the least promising digital skills

  1. Invoice processing and management of accounts using accounting software
  2. Data input and preparation of payroll and tax reports
  3. Clerical duties (e.g. typing, using a word processor, spreadsheets, email and calendar software)
  4. Sales support and processing of orders in sales management systems
  5. Stock and inventory management using inventory control systems

So what’s to be done to protect millions from having their lives ruined? For a start, schools need to focus on the skills that will see rising demand: judgement, problem-solving, creativity, and collaboration. These should be at the core of the curriculum, not at the margins as they are now.

Then we need to shift the direction of tech development to actually help people. We’re beginning to see great testbeds around the world that link users and technology upstream  like EDULabs in Estonia, MindCET in Israel, or Digital Promise in the US. In the UK, we’re working with government to run a new  fund for edtech with testbeds connecting teachers and technologists and a new fund will commission AI to help the people most threatened by automation.

Whatever happens, we need smarter tools to help people navigate trickier times. Google and LinkedIn are moving this way, as is Sweden’s public employment agency. Our Open Jobs platforms bring together data on jobs vacancies, skills requirements, and pay levels; forecasts on which jobs are likely to grow and shrink; and apps that make it easy for 15 year olds or 50 year olds to guide their choices:

Finally, we’ll need new policies, including entitlements to learn and relearn.

AI promises vast productivity gains. Those gains may all be captured by a tiny minority living in gated communities, terrified of the anger of the millions whose lives have been ruined. Or we could share the gains more fairly. It’s our choice.