Automation and careers

Readers of this blog know I worry a lot about how we are preparing our kids for the economy of the past, not the economy they will live in. Its not just the kind of work we want other people’s kids (not ours) to prepare for (either STEM or skilled trades) but also what we mean by career ready. Career ready continues for most to mean having a trade or profession. With the belief that once you have the qualifications for a particular occupation you are set for your working life. Think again!

More evidence of the increasing impermanence of occupations at all skill levels comes from a recent report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch entitled Robot Revolution––Global Robot and AI Primer. The report is written to identify big trends in the economy and how investors can make money by investing in the companies leading the change.

Yes companies that are creating smarter and smarter machines are likely to grow and yes companies that utilize these smarter and smarter machines best are likely to gain a competitive edge. But as the report notes the use of smarter and smarter machines also means work that humans are currently doing will be eliminated. Not just jobs, but also occupations. So much for get a trade or profession and be set for a working life.

The report starts with an overview of the impact of smarter and smarter machines: The pace of disruptive technological innovation has gone from linear to parabolic in recent years. Penetration of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) has hit every industry sector, and has become an integral part of our daily lives. Technology has also expanded beyond routine work, and moved into complex problem-solving, and replicating human perception, tasks that only people were capable of.

The report identifies eight sectors where robots and artificial intelligence are likely to substantially grow over the coming decades: “1) Artificial Intelligence; 2) Aerospace & Defense (including drones); 3) Autos & Transport; 4) Financials; 5) Healthcare; 6) Industrials; 7) Services (domestic); and 8) Agriculture & Mining”. The report continues:

We anticipate fast growth for the likes of agribots, AI, automation, care-bots, cobots, drones(commercial and military), fintech, industrial robots, medical robots & computer-assisted surgery, self-driving cars, service robots, software and telehealth. … The combination of AI, machine learning, deep learning, and natural user interfaces such as voice recognition are making it possible to automate many knowledge worker tasks that were long regarded as impossible or impractical for machines to perform.

Given the priority that policy makers, the media and employers have placed on getting more kids into the manufacturing skilled trades its noteworthy that the report predicts: “… only 10% of manufacturing tasks are automated worldwide, a figure which is likely to reach up to 45% in 10 years for sectors such as computers & electronics, electrical equipment, machinery, and transportation equipment”. Knowing that any of you going to push your kids into a manufacturing skilled trade?

But its not just traditional blue collar occupations that are at risk to be automated away. The report states: “Advances in computing technology, machine learning, and user-friendly interfaces such as voice and facial recognition will bring profound changes to knowledge work employment, which will cost US$14 trillion by 2025E. By then, computerization could potentially take on the work of 110-140mn full-time equivalents…”

Careers last for roughly forty years. Its time we stop thinking of career ready as having the credentials to get a first job in a trade or occupation. There is no way of knowing whether that trade or occupation is going to be in demand for a decade let alone four. As we have explored previously, successful careers are going to look a lot more like rock climbing rather than climbing a known and predictable career ladder. The skills one needs to be a successful rock climber are broad skills that allow one to constantly adjust and learn rather than occupation specific skills.

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