Yes, the robots are definitely coming for the jobs of America’s 3.5 million cashiers. Just ask the retail workers who’ve already been displaced by automated checkout machines. Robots may also be coming for radiologists, whose expertise diagnosing diseases through X-rays and MRIs is facing stiff competition from artificial intelligence. And robots are starting to do some of the work in professions as diverse as chef, office clerk and tractor-trailer operator.
For most of us, though, the robot invasion will simply change the tasks we do, not destroy our jobs altogether. That’s according to researchers who study the impact of automation on jobs. They also note that, as the spread of artificial intelligence automates the rote parts of our jobs, it will not only force us to upgrade our skills but also free us up to take on more sophisticated tasks. Meanwhile, the education system will have to adapt by focusing on giving people the high-level problem-solving and interpersonal skills that robots may never be able to master.
Over the next decade, at least one-third of the tasks in about 60 percent of jobs could be automated, according to research by consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Globally, the firm estimates that up to 30 percent of current work hours will be automated. Less than 5 percent of jobs, McKinsey says, will disappear completely in that period. Here, we take a look at jobs that, to the extent that workforce and automation research can predict the future, will continue to depend largely on uniquely human skills, thus remaining relatively robot-proof.
The most vulnerable jobs are low-skill positions in very structured and predictable settings, such as heavy-machinery operations and fast-food work. Significant parts of white-collar jobs that involve collecting and processing information — paralegal work, accounting and mortgage origination, for example — are also likely to be automated. “The jobs that will go away are the jobs that are routine in nature,” said Joseph B. Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Jobs that don't require much deviation from a central task, he noted, are the easiest to describe in an algorithm and thus prime candidates for automation.
If you’re a doctor, you should aim to be an even smarter doctor. If you’re a garbage collector, you should aim to be a smarter garbage collector.
Benjamin Pring, co-founder and managing director of The Center for the Future of Work
In contrast, robot-proof jobs tend to involve tasks like decision-making and problem-solving, and require a flexible mindset and a willingness to multitask. They’re also likely to require higher education, according to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis conducted for The Hechinger Report. “For the most part, a bachelor’s degree has a higher probability of giving you automation protection,” said Megan Fasules, an assistant professor and research economist at the center who compiled the data. “So even if my job has a degree of automation, a bachelor’s degree might allow me to have the skills to adapt to changes more easily.”
As artificial intelligence enters workplaces, many jobs will become hybrid versions of earlier jobs. Job roles and skills will mix together in new ways — forcing education programs to adapt as well. For example, Harvard’s Fuller cites the growing demand for registered nurses with specialized computer science skills. “I’ve looked all across the U.S., there is no such education program available.”
Workers in all job levels will need to keep sharpening their skills and continuing to learn, according to Benjamin Pring, co-founder and managing director of The Center for the Future of Work, a research unit funded by Cognizant, a tech services company. “If you’re a doctor, you should aim to be an even smarter doctor. If you’re a garbage collector, you should aim to be a smarter garbage collector.”
He says that a more personalized method of education, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, may do the best job of preparing young people for the future work environment. Whereas traditional, standardized teaching models work for motivated students, they often leave less motivated or struggling students behind, he says. “A more personalized approach, where the performance of each child is improved, will create, in aggregate, smarter people who can thrive in this era in which tools and machines are smarter than ourselves,” said Pring.
The notion that we can train someone in 2018 for job requirements in 2028 isn’t realistic.
Joseph B. Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School
But there’s only so much educators, and workers, can do now to prepare. “The notion that we can train someone in 2018 for job requirements in 2028 isn’t realistic,” Fuller said. Given the fast pace of change, job training will have to be fluid rather than static, helping people gather the skills to survive as workplaces and needs continuously evolve.
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