Originally published on Forbes - July 15, 2021
I’m sure you’ve seen stats that predict automation’s impact on the human workforce. According to a McKinsey report, within the decade, “75 million to 375 million may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills.” Data by Oxford Economics suggests that more than 8% of the “global manufacturing workforce stands to be replaced by robots” by 2030. And McKinsey estimates, “in about 60% of occupations, at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated” within the same period.
For so many of us, these are crippling, anxiety-provoking possibilities. But they don’t have to be.
To be clear, there are two pivotal issues at play in the current national conversation around automation. The first relates to preparing today’s students — particularly high schoolers — for the jobs of tomorrow. The second relates to helping workers learn new skills so they can transition into new jobs wrought by automation.
For some, this duality begs the question: How do we help workers and learners prepare for jobs that don’t even exist yet? However, I think the better question is: How can we ensure that automation best serves our country’s rapidly changing educational and workforce needs?
Simply put, our country needs more corporate leaders who are willing to create innovative ways to meet the demands of this moment. To this end, we should be embracing automation instead of delaying, or even worse, running from the inevitable.
As Kevin Carey, a noted policy analyst and education writer, points out, “automation works especially well when workers are partners in designing their new relationships to machines.” After all, humans are the ones who are the architects of our impending “robot revolution.”
That means we are the ones who make the rules. It’s not the other way around; robots are being designed to do what we program and ask them to do. So why not help them, help us? For example, “Amazon uses hundreds of thousands of cutting-edge robots in its warehouses … the robots are the shelves, which move to humans, who still do the picking.”
Similarly, to support our shared goal of using automation to our advantage, we can:
1. Forge more partnerships between businesses and educational institutions to ensure that high school students are better prepared for jobs in high-demand, high-growth industries like information technology and health care.
2. Invest in more workforce development initiatives like reskilling and upskilling programs to help retool and retrain workers who are most at risk of job loss due to automation.
3. Support innovative learning options like project-based learning to help high schoolers mimic the real-world working environment and learn automation-proof skills like teamwork and collaboration.
4. Create more paid and online learning opportunities like internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing experiences for high school students and working professionals interested in making a career switch.
In my own career journey, I’ve seen how the above investments can help set strategic direction, drive the success of new initiatives and improve company morale.
I am not suggesting that we discount the very real, tangible and painful effects of job loss as the result of automation. But what I am saying is if we truly want to better equip our nation’s workers and help build a stronger post-pandemic economy — one in which people of all walks of life, backgrounds and skill sets can succeed — we must move beyond our fear of what’s to come and plan for what is.
Today, we can create classrooms and workplaces that embrace robotics and advanced manufacturing. Today, we can prepare high schoolers and working professionals for jobs in coding and software development. Today, we can provide them with more opportunities to hone their skills in project management and critical thinking. These are the opportunities we need to get them ready for, and we can start doing it — not 10 years from now, not six months from now, but right now.
The fear-laden conversations some of us are currently having about automation aren’t helping us, and they’re certainly not helping our students or employees. We mustn’t allow fear to paralyze our capacity to light the way forward. And we must remember that today’s learners and earners are counting on us. We owe it to them to get this right.