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Why companies should prepare for the post-automation workforce

We have all heard the expression “a trained monkey could to that job”. It is usually meat as an offense to someone who is not doing very well at what seems a rather simple task. Yet in spite of the frequency of the saying, I don’t really know of any primates stealing jobs or being employed outside the entertainment sector where, in all fairness, a trained human could not do what they do – we are simply not that cute.

All in all, human employment rates don’t go down on account of chimps. It’s not the same with robots though.

Even though there is no patented popular wisdom in this respect, artificial intelligence is very present in our lives and has already started to replace people in various industries. It does not only perform easy assignments but also very complex ones – let’s face it, AI is smarter than us.

And it keeps developing at rapid speeds because 90% of all the scientists who ever lived and 85% of all the engineers who ever lived are alive today. Since their job is to develop stuff and the stuff they develop is radically changing all of our jobs it’s fair to ask ourselves:

How will the workplace look in the (rather near) future?

The numbers

A recent study analyzed skill requirements for individual work activities in over 800 occupations to figure out the number of hours that the workforce spends on twenty-five core skills today. Once that was done, the researchers estimated the extent to which these skill requirements could change by 2030, as automation and artificial technologies become integrated in the workplace. Then they ran a detailed survey with over 3000 business leaders in seven countries to see if the findings were consistent with how they saw things.

They were.

The twenty five skills were grouped into five categories: physical and manual (the largest today by a landslide), basic cognitive, higher cognitive, social and emotional, and technological skills (today’s smallest category).

Shift in skills is not new to the workplace but the magnitude of the coming changes is pretty impressive: more than one in three workers may need to adapt their skills’ mix by 2030, which is more than double the number who could be displaced by automation under some of the adoption scenarios of the study.

With AI taking over, basic cognitive skills, such as reading and basic numeracy, will not be enough for many jobs while demand for advanced technological skills, such as coding and programming, will rise by 55% in 2030.

The changes

It is natural that some are worried that people’s jobs will be lost. However, the above mentioned study concluded that need for basic cognitive skills as well as physical and manual skills will not disappear. In fact, physical and manual skills will still be the largest category (if we count the hours worked) in many countries of the world.

In other states, such as France and the United Kingdom manual skills will be overtaken by a growing need for social and emotional skills, while in Germany, higher cognitive skills will become the most sought after. These country differences come from the various industry mixes they each have. It’s obvious that states that are more agricultural or with emerging economies will not jump into the highly technological era very soon.

Of course these estimates were based on the automation potential of sectors and countries as they are today. It could all change depending on the speed with which AI gets adopted by businesses and the resistance of the workforce – strong unions will probably have a big say in this. As it all looks at the present time, China in particular and all of Asia in general seems to have a head start with their big volumes of investments in AI.

The solutions

The way things are looking, we all need to be ready for re-training and re-skilling. The challenge stands not only for businesses but also for the entire education system that needs to adapt fast in order to produce graduates with a real shot of getting and holding a job. Some legislative changes should also be made in order to offer some sort of rewards to those who invest in human development.

For companies, these modifications are part of the big automation challenge. They will need to go back to the drawing board and rethink everything from their overall organization to the strategic workforce needs.

The starting point for all of this will have to be a radical change in mindset. Companies need to understand that their future success is connected to their ability to provide quality, continuous learning opportunities for their employees. This skill shift is not only a hurdle but a good opportunity for organizations to develop the people who are part of them – the new skills will lead to productivity growth, bigger salaries and overall prosperity.

Failure to ride the new wave will only result in most of us looking like cute (but rather useless) primates next to AI.

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