One of my sons graduated college with a business degree and a focus in Information Technology (IT). At the time, the trend to outsource programming and other IT jobs to places like India was in its infancy. When he asked for my advice, I told him he was in an industry that would likely grow for the duration of his career but it would be important for him to stay in jobs that required him to interact with customers face-to-face. After all, no one can outsource human contact to another continent.
It turned out to be good advice (at least so far). Indeed a working paper authored by David Deming for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that social skills, especially when combined with math skills, are the most important element in adapting to a future where Artificial Intelligence (AI) replaces people doing routine work. The study’s conclusions are backed up by a parallel study at University of California, Santa Barbara by Catherine Weinberger who concludes, in part, that the combination of social and cognitive skills has been important in career progression at least since the 1970’s and that a combination of the two has become more important to career earnings over time.
So, what does all this mean to today’s students?
Many experts tell us we shouldn’t worry about robots or other forms of AI taking our jobs. But others – even those who promote the benefits of the AI revolution – worry that the pace of innovation will be too quick for the workforce to adapt.
Already there is a hotel in Japan that is staffed entirely by robots and a factory in China that is similarly operated. And, a 2013 Oxford University study predicts that 47% of workers in the U.S. will lose their jobs to automation over the next 20 years.
You don’t have to look very hard to find analyses of how automation and AI have and will eliminate jobs. However, to project a future world of work, you have to look at how business strategies will change when enabled by these advances.
Much of the improvements we shall see in the quality of products and services will not be the result of robots running the show but rather by virtue of the use of advanced sensing devices and data analysis. In a manufacturing environment for example, such technology will better identify quality issues on production lines or monitor supply networks. They will increase the demand for industrial engineers and people managing the supply chain.
Businesses will use these advances to evolve their offerings consistent with the concept of ‘Shared Value’ advanced by Harvard’s Michael Porter. For example, a manufacturer that sells industrial equipment like generators or turbines could offer its products as a service, installing and then remotely monitoring them to identify repair and maintenance issues before a breakdown occurs. Maintenance and upgrades would be the responsibility of the manufacturer rather than the customer.
The ability to interpret digital data and manage machinery to optimize availability and cost would be among the new skills required of technicians. Like supply chain coordinators, industrial engineers, robot coordinators, simulation experts, data analysts, accountants and sales people, jobs that already exist will require new skills to accomplish them. The careers of the next generation will require these skills.
A traditional 20th Century college education – particularly the now overabundant undergraduate business degree – will not serve us well. Where and how will these new skills be acquired? How will the workers of the future know what skills to learn?
Moreover, what advice will you give to your kid when he or she graduates from college?
WHO WILL LEAD?