New developments in robotics, information technology and artificial intelligence are allowing for never-before-seen efficiency in almost every industry. In fact, some tasks are becoming so efficient that machines can perform them faster, cheaper and with fewer errors than humans. From basic number crunching to the complex physical tasks required in manufacturing, a wide variety of jobs already have been heavily automated.
Several organizations have studied this phenomenon, gauging people’s risks of losing their jobs. One study from Oxford University ranked hundreds of occupations’ risks and found that telemarketers, underwriters and watch repairers face the greatest risk, while therapists, audiologists and choreographers are relatively safe. Another report analyzed automation risk by city and found that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs may be performed by machines within the next two decades.
While a wave of automation is almost inevitable, however, it isn’t necessarily cause for panic. Technological improvements do eliminate some jobs, but they also free up time, resources and energy that people can pour into other profitable pursuits. For both employers and employees, here are a few considerations regarding the jobs that may be automated, jobs that won’t, and how employees and employers should respond.
Soon to be Automated?
Physical or not—and sophisticated or not—jobs that require a great deal of repetition are among the most likely to be performed by machines in the next 20 to 30 years. These include blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing line workers and garbage disposers, as well as white collar jobs including call center employees, accountants and even some medical staff. In fact, many of the non-litigation tasks attorneys perform may soon be taken over by automated services such as LegalZoom. Given the rapidly increasing sophistication of computer algorithms—and the potential for true artificial intelligence—even complex, seemingly patternless jobs may be soon by automated.
A Human Touch
Of course, not every profession can be done by a machine—far from it! The most difficult tasks to automate involve managing people and providing human interaction. Many of these jobs are in healthcare and education, such as teachers, physicians, therapists and surgeons. According to the Brookfield Institute, these jobs also include psychologists, nurses, counselors and a host of other professions that depend upon face-to-face interactions.
Aside from people skills, creativity will remain a top trait for non-automated jobs. Artists and engineers are obvious examples, but IT and computer science—and scientific advancement in general—will still require a human touch. A robot may be able to perform rote coding tasks, for example, but it takes an innovative software engineer to write new programs and debug mysteriously ineffective code.
What does all of this mean for current and prospective employees? If you have a diverse, widely applicable skill set, you may not have much to fear. While a wide array of tasks will soon be automated, your job in its entirety may not be. If you work in finance, for instance, computers will take over most tasks involving data collection and processing. But you’ll still need to make sense of all that data, compile it into reports and communicate the information to other stakeholders. You won’t need to crunch so many numbers, but your understanding of the automated tasks will still be essential. You’ll also have more time to focus on translating raw data into strategy and action.
For hiring companies, the traits of a great employee will remain the same: reliable, autonomous, communicative and detail-oriented. What likely will change are the specific skills for which you’ll need to screen. Technical understanding will still be a must, but in many industries, the hard skills necessary to repeatedly perform fast, accurate work will become less important. At the same time, creativity, innovation and an ability to think outside the box will be top priorities, perhaps even for entry-level employees. As automation frees up more time for face-to-face interaction, the same will be true for communication, observation and other “soft” skills.