Friday, February 10, 2017

Automation's impact on the work force

The subject of conversations lately is turning toward the workplace and economy of the near future. More and more people are starting to wonder how automation, robots and self-driving vehicles will impact the workforce. They also want to know what we should do about it.

The simple answer is that automation is going to eliminate certain types of jobs. Robots can already make cars. Pretty soon, they'll make other robots and build factories. They'll serve food. They'll build houses and roads. They'll load aircraft with baggage. Cars will have computers capable of driving themselves better than a human. And so much more. The domino effect of these things will eliminate even more jobs.

I think what this will finally require is a complete overhaul of our economy and the evolution of our careers. It will start with education. Far too few people currently can afford to get a higher education, and those that borrow for it find themselves unable to repay their loan when they can't get work in the career they've trained for. This results in an overabundance of unskilled and skilled baristas, restaurant servers and retail workers. All of which are easily replaceable with robots. Never mind the currently employed workers whose jobs can and will be replaced by technology.

I think this points out the obvious conclusion that nobody will make it through their career anymore on one track, or a couple sets of skills. Successful careers will require constant retraining, resetting. Careers will require higher degrees of learning to enter a job market requiring programmers, database specialists, etc. In fact, it has already been predicted that the blue collar job of the near future is the garden variety coder. Our current system doesn't allow for equal access to higher degrees of learning, at least not in North America. Other jurisdictions have already figured out that making education accessible to the masses for free, not only elevates the overall capability of the population, but it also gives them the freedom to switch tracks at any time. It's a future-proof strategy, and we better adopt it soon, before the jobs of the future migrate to those jurisdictions, where the workforce is highly trained and have career mobility.

Another element of education that will need to change, is the willingness of institutions to offer curriculum that has no chance of obtaining work upon completion. I not only find this practise irresponsible, it smacks of borderline fraud. Institutions will need to partner much more closely with industry, to ensure that education tracks only run when there is a job waiting for it at its conclusion. This will require both fast-tracking the curriculum and finishing it on-the-job, just in time. These partnerships could even help fund the education in the first place, by offering to subsidize institutions or student cost of living, on the condition that graduates agree to work for the sponsoring company for a fixed term.

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