Jobs-altering technology

One of the new economic realities, that can’t be altered by politics or public policy, is that smarter and smarter machines are going to accelerate creative destruction of jobs, occupations and even industries. The job, occupation and even the industry you work in today are less secure than yesterday, and will be even less secure tomorrow. Both stable occupational skills and predictable career ladders are increasingly toast.

The new reality is that none of us have a clue what the jobs and occupations of the future will be. Today’s job are not a good indicator of what jobs will be in demand when today’s K-12 students finish their careers in the 2050s or 2060s. We simply don’t know how and when smarter and smarter machines are going to change labor markets.

(For those interested in exploring this topic in depth I highly recommend The Second Machine Age by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the MIT Center for Digital Business. Or watching the You Tube video Humans Need Not Apply.)

Two recent New York Times articles highlight this new reality. The first is entitled Uber Aims for an Edge in the Race for a Self-Driving Future. The Times reports:

A world in which cars drive themselves may come sooner than once thought.

On Thursday, Uber said that it would begin testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh in a matter of weeks, allowing people in the city to hail modified versions of Volvo sport utility vehicles to get around the city.

Uber also said it had acquired Otto, a 90-person start-up including former Google and Carnegie Mellon engineers that is focused on developing self-driving truck technology to upend the shipping industry. Those moves are the most recent indications of Uber’s ambitions for autonomous vehicles that can provide services to both consumers and businesses.

And they come after Ford Motor’s announcement this week that it would put fleets of self-driving taxis onto American roads in five years.

Bloomberg in an article on Uber’s Pittsburgh launch writes: “The goal: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers—as quickly as possible.”

So much for Uber being the leading edge of the so-called gig economy worker. But its not just Uber drivers who are in jeopardy of losing their jobs. Its everyone that drives/pilots a vehicle for a living. In the Humans Need Not Apply video they estimate that is three million Americans and seventy million workers across the globe.

The second article is about AT&T moving from connecting people and delivering content through wires to one where AT&T is providing services through the Cloud. The article is entitled Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else. (Worth reading. The article deals with the challenges of retraining workers from today’s AT&T skills to tomorrow’s AT&T skills.)

The Times writes:

Long ago, a phone system created wire lines between callers, and operators moved plugs in their switchboards to connect people. Over time, that was automated to become something closer to a computer, with digital fibers and wireless towers. Much of the setup, however, still needed lots of people to tend hardware that had been built for particular tasks, like feeding one neighborhood’s calls into a nationwide backbone of wires, fiber and switches.

Today, Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and chief executive, is trying to reinvent the company so it can compete more deftly. Not that long ago it had to fight for business with other phone companies and cellular carriers. Then the Internet and cloud computing came along, and AT&T found itself in a tussle with a whole bunch of companies.

AT&T’s competitors are not just Verizon and Sprint, but also tech giants like Amazon and Google. For the company to survive in this environment, Mr. Stephenson needs to retrain its 280,000 employees so they can improve their coding skills, or learn them, and make quick business decisions based on a fire hose of data coming into the company.

The creative destruction that is occurring at Uber and AT&T––more broadly in the information and transportation industries––are examples of what can and will happen in more and more sectors of the economy. Obviously this is not a future we would pick if we had a choice. But unfortunately we don’t. Machines are going to be able to do more and more of the work that humans are currently doing as well as creating new industries that will replace today’s industries.

So the challenge for all of us––particularly our kids––is to develop the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations. Our analogy: are rock climbers, rather than ladder climbers, in a world where known and linear career ladders are rapidly disappearing.

We need a lifelong education system that develops rock climbing skills rather than one that develops narrow occupational skills that increasingly have a shorter and shorter half life.

Bill Wagner, Ann Arbor software entrepreneur, summed up the challenge well in a 2011 column:

Preparing people for one job, and one job only, creates a temporary and rigid work force. … Your education must prepare you for a long career that meets constant changes in the job market, and supports your own growth. The only constant during a life-long career is that you’ll need to adapt. The important question for our education system: Are you prepared for all the changes that may come in the future?

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