A brave new world? Reskill or face replacement by robots?

Reskill or face replacement by robots?

Technological advances are set to transform the global workforce. Increased use of AI and robotics mean millions are likely to find themselves surplus to requirements. Only people with technical and specialist skills are likely to have any job security.

Also on KPMG.com

A brave new world? Reskill or face replacement by robots?

By Bill Nowacki 

  • Technology including robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will put service industry and white collar jobs at risk
  • Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) individuals and creatives will not be replaced by robots
  • Reskilling is essential for the majority to remain relevant.

Technological advances are set to transform the global workforce. Increased use of AI and robotics mean millions are likely to find themselves surplus to requirements. Only people with technical and specialist skills are likely to have any job security. 

A 2013 Oxford University study found that 47 percent of US employment is at risk from the development of AI. The loss of blue-collar jobs is nothing new, but the increasing pace of technological innovation means this trend is set to expand into service industry and white-collar roles too.

Clearly, AI, automation and robotics will not take every job. There is a firewall where creative and ethical judgements come into play. Musicians, artists and philosophers are unlikely to be replaced by machines.

On the other hand, many professions previously considered a safe haven will be under threat from automation. Stock market traders are competing with algorithms, while bookbots are replacing librarians and teaching can take place in online classrooms. Nobody is immune. 

The winners in this digital economy will be the highly intelligent science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) educated individuals who can create, programme and maintain the computers. The geeks will inherit the earth, becoming the endowed class, and highly rewarded for working with AI, decision science and automated systems.

And the rest? Well, humans are social animals, we will still have a yearning for human interaction. Robots will not staff luxury or premium services. For those who can afford them, there will be human waiters in restaurants, teachers in classrooms or brokers at the end of the phone. However, the competition for these remaining low and medium-skilled jobs will be intense.

In an acceleration of the phenomenon where tech-based companies require a much smaller workforce than mechanised industries, the number of human beings in work will shrink. For example, only one teacher can broadcast to hundreds or thousands online, particularly when software marks the homework. 

With a surplus of skilled workers available, those most likely to succeed are people with great social and communication skills – with a high EQ. I think these social and connective skills should be taught in schools, as they are essential to the future economy. 

Ultimately, the division of society into the well-rewarded STEM educated intelligentsia and the rest does not bode well. It is not possible to write off 20% of the working population and expect them to be content.

Governments can help by investing in training skilled tradespeople. It will be a long time before a robot can replace a plumber. Equally, the demand for craft and artisan goods desired by the wealthy is likely to remain high. Training people in carpentry, cheese making, craft brewing or jewellery making will keep people in work. 

Responsibility also falls on the individual. No matter what social strata people are in, or what academic background they have, everyone needs to take a more strategic view of their career. The smartest employees will recognise the coming threat, and seek to specialise in areas that favour human input. Take two engineers, one who is an excellent generalist may find their role automated, but one who focuses on ergonomics and sustainability could occupy a niche and keep their job. 

Specialising will not save us all. The retooling requirement is so vast that millions will be unable to adapt. Steady unemployment figures in the developed world, particularly among former blue-collar workers reflect this reality.

In this brave new world, everybody needs to work out what differentiates them from the rest of the working population. People need to try to maximise the human element of their offering. We cannot sit back and hope for the best – the robots are coming.

Reference - 1. The Future of Employment

Connect with us

 

Request for proposal

 

Submit

KPMG’s new-look website

KPMG’s new-look website