It is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution; a new world in which artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and other cutting edge sciences will reshape the landscape of the working world. But, as was the case with previous Industrial Revolutions, all of the potential benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution may come at a cost -- jobs being taken away from humans and handed to automated agents of the new technology.
The adoption of hi-tech robots and AI systems will have a severe impact on the modern labor market. This view is reinforced by a recent report created by the World Economic Forum. Titled "The Future of Jobs," the report states that in the near future, millions of jobs currently staffed by people will be made redundant or be taken over by robots, autonomous transport vehicles, and AI systems powered by increasingly powerful machine learning.
Some of the concerns in the WEF report were echoed at the recent 2016 Milken Institute's Global Conference. The event was held with the rather grim sounding theme "The Future of Human Kind." One of the panels at the conference was titled "Jobs and Technology: Is Any Job Truly Safe?"
Warnings about the loss of human jobs to machines are coming from many different organizations -- including the White House. This year's "Economic Report of the President" warns that 83 percent of workers who make $20/hr or less will eventually see their jobs automated and given to machines. This predicted impact drops to 31 percent for workers earning between $20-40/hr, however this is still a significant and worrying future trend.
The upcoming wave of automated workers poses a challenge to today's college and university students. These young adults, who are already fully engaged with their studies, must now consider if their chosen future career paths will be compromised by what some experts are calling "technology-based unemployment."
But, there are some skills which are more likely to remain valuable and less replaceable in the hybrid human/machine workplace. These are skills which students in any degree program can add to their education through elective courses, work experience, and volunteer activities.
Here are the top five future-proof skills that today's students should consider honing before entering the upcoming automated workforce. These skills are not college majors to be pursued; rather, they are abilities that augment acquired education, and help to differentiate human workers from their potential machine replacements.
The ability to teach concepts and skills to other people is very valuable. This skill requires a well-developed sense of human empathy, and an understanding of the different ways people learn new things. An affinity for training others is a skill that translates across numerous industries, both blue collar and white collar. While computer software can be used to deliver training, it is not the best or most intuitive teacher. And, employers want people on staff who have a talent for training others while working beside them.
Students can pick up this skill by taking courses which focus on the basics of adult education. Even better, students should consider volunteering at a local education outreach program. These programs often host classes for adults on subjects like basic computing and internet use, for example.
There are some pundits who believe AI systems will dominate the future workplace of copywriters, technical writers, illustrators, and other content creators. However, while there have been some interesting experiments performed in this area, intelligent machines are still not nearly as adept at content creation as their human counterparts. People who can create the right content for a given audience, especially an audience consisting of C-level executives or other business leaders, will always be in greater demand than a machine.
While there are some obvious degree programs based on content creation, this skill set is open to any student who wants to add it to their repertoire. Look for courses on writing and editing professional content; the ability to write relevant documents and self-edit them for clarity and error-free prose will be a valuable skill in nearly any workplace.
Every student who has had to write a term paper has done research. In fact, we are a research-driven society. People go online to read about products before making purchases. DIY handymen read up on how to perform home projects before grabbing a tool belt. AIs and intelligent systems are remarkably good at manipulating information, but there is no overwhelming evidence that these machines will excel at self-conducting innovative research. Instead, these systems will continue to serve as research assistants to people.
Today's secondary students are very good researchers by necessity. One key aspect of great research skills is knowing how to weigh and curate information found online. Anyone who has ever looked up illness symptoms in a search engine is well aware of the sketchy nature of information published online by self-proclaimed medical experts. When performing research online, people are able to provide intuitive context to findings, a skill that has not been demonstrated by intelligent systems.
The ability to persuade people is a uniquely human skill, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. A key principle of persuasion is to have empathy for the other person's position. Persuasion is a finely-honed dance of human interaction. While a machine can present compelling information and mimic conversation, it is largely unable to perform the nuanced give-and-take that people can.
One of the best ways to develop persuasion skills is to participate in an on-campus debate club. Debating uses a great mix of skills, including persuasive speaking in a time-sensitive environment -- something which is synonymous with the dozens of business meetings a student will find themselves participating in during their working lives.
Building Professional Relationships
There is a popular slogan found on job boards and professional networking sites: people don't leave companies, they leave managers. There isn't an employer out there that doesn't appreciate someone who is able to create and maintain strong working relationships with direct reports, peers, and senior leaders. Robots may be excellent workers, but even a company that adopts some automation will still need people who can collaborate with others, both internally and with outside industry partners.
Students who end up participating in group projects are given the opportunity to hone their interpersonal skills. Being active in professional networking groups is another great way to practice building work-related connections -- as opposed to machine connections based on Wi-Fi and a power cord.
"The Future of Jobs," World Economic Forum, January 18, 2016, https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs
"Middle class workers are losing their jobs to robots," Geek.com, May 8, 2016, Meredith Placko, http://www.geek.com/news/middle-class-workers-are-losing-their-jobs-to-robots-1654097/