Fifty years ago, in a café that did not employ a barista—and coffee was cheap—I’m convinced two colleagues on their lunchbreak were debating what the future of jobs would look like.
“I bet one day robots will have their own employment agency,” one said to the other. Laughter ensued, and they returned to their jobs on the production line of a manufacturing plant.
Well, it’s happened. Robots do have their own employment agency.
In December of 2019, MusahiAI offered up its robots for hire to be paid either on an hourly rate or a task-completed salary rate. Robots wanting these jobs would need to be able to do strenuous and repetitive work.
While today, robots across the U.S. are employed doing just this type of work, they have a career development trajectory that involves more advanced skills such as “thinking.” Through artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots will ultimately be able to figure out ways to improve whatever jobs they are given.
Does this robot evolution threaten human evolution? It depends on which study you believe.
A study by Oxford Economics predicts that manufacturing could lose 20 million jobs by 2030, making the sector 8.5% smaller than “if robots were not remaking the market.” A McKinsey Institute study predicts that by 2030, 39 to 73 million jobs that exist today – one-third of the US workforce– will be automated.
Then there is the study from the World Economic Forum which predicts that the 75 million jobs lost by 2022 due to “the technological advances of the fourth industrial revolution” will in fact be overshadowed by the 133 million new jobs created.
What Skills Are Needed in the Future?
One thing that everyone can agree on is that whatever jobs are available in the future, they will look different and require new skills.
Is this a bad thing? Well, one viewpoint is that robots are freeing us from the drudgery of both harmful and repetitive tasks, allowing us to move higher up the value chain in the organization. Jobs that involve creative thinking and problem-solving are more valuable to a company and therefore pay more and are more secure in terms of long-term employment.
But that might be a large leap forward.
While many reports show that jobs that require less skills have been taken over by machines, there is debate as to the scale of this. A recent report by the Brookings Institution shows that better-paid, white-collar occupations may be the most exposed to artificial intelligence. And the effects of this will be felt more by men and prime-age workers.
So, the question for the future closely resembles the current questions of who will work which jobs, and what types of skills are necessary.
What will happen to the population that is less skilled and currently can find work on a factory line earning a good living? What about those employees who are now upskilling or learning new skills? Are they receiving the training for the value-added jobs of the future?
Manufacturing companies are squarely focused on these issues and are already addressing them. For example, one East Coast manufacturing company I know of had its finger on the pulse of its workforce, understanding that workers were concerned about machines taking their jobs. The company looked at its career development path and ended up promoting a significant portion of the workers. The promotion enabled workers to move up the value chain and made them less vulnerable to job loss. This company also noted that some of its most skilled workers had come to the company from a fast-food chain, validating the idea that hiring less-skilled workers and training them in-house is a good approach.
The Future of Training
Training has always been in the DNA of manufacturing. In-house training for continuously improving processes has evolved to in-house training of the workers themselves. In the past few years, apprenticeship programs, many based on the successful German model, have become more common in the U.S. Often, German-based companies such as VW, Siemens and Bosch are offering apprenticeship programs to their U.S.-based employees. Many companies are also working with educational institutions to provide vocational classroom training that complements company-specific training.
While these programs are successful, they are limited. Research done by Johann Fortwengel at King's College London of the apprenticeship model in the US, England and Australia found that many small-to-medium-sized companies cannot either afford these programs or find them to be too complex. State and local workforce agencies are jumping in and trying to build out these programs in order to accommodate any size company.
But on a policy level, it’s slow going. While the Department of Labor certifies these programs, often they are company-specific.
"America lacks a national strategy that prioritizes youth apprenticeship as an effective talent pipeline to boost the sector’s competitiveness and spread economic opportunity across the country,” says Brent Parton of New America, a nonprofit public policy institute.
Where Will Future Workers Come From?
Putting all of this together, there are a lot of questions to be answered and policy choices to make.
Will the U.S. adopt the German model which tests children at a young age to understand their capabilities and then set them on a track? For example, if a 10-year-old shows an aptitude toward programming, do we line up an education track that essentially trains them toward a future job? Do we send them to robotic camps in the summer and at the high school level move them into internships with area companies with the hope that they will be employed by these companies?
Many educational systems are already doing this in an effort to fill manufacturing jobs, but the larger question is how education, and vocational education will be viewed in the future.
In an extreme view, robots will do all of the work, even what we consider service work today, and then how will people earn their keep? Political discussions are already underway about universal income and using social wealth funds to compensate for earned wages.
“A social wealth fund would create a true ownership society, insuring the working populace against the rise of the robots by allowing each person to own a piece of those robots’ output,” explained Noah Smith, professor computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, in a Bloomberg op-ed.
What humans will do for work, how we will perform our jobs and how we will be compensated is not something that will be solved anytime soon.
So, it’s possible that in 2070, there will be two robots sitting in a café with a robot barista, drinking expensive coffee. One turns to the other and says, “Do you think we need to contact that human employment agency to find someone who can come up with new product lines?”