Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Future of Work: Androids and Electric Sheep

By Evan D. Robertson, Senior Project Associate

It’s only September and already it is safe to declare 2015 the year of the Luddites. It is though humankind’s collective consciousness stumbled upon a deep concern that automation and robotics could have an immense and lasting impact on the nature of work. In one camp stand individuals who believe that technology and automation will continue to create more jobs than they ultimately destroy. The foundation of their argument is that we will always be crucial for certain business functions. Job growth figures over the last hundred or so years are, of course, on their side. The other camp is decidedly less optimistic about our future in the workplace. The end of work debate is nothing new, Jeremy Rifkin wrote extensively on the subject while John Maynard Keynes wrote an 1930 essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in which Keynes felt that the sheer power of income earning interest would allow us to dedicate our lives to less monetary focused pursuits. 

For us in the economic development field, automation and robotics generates far more questions than solutions. In terms of workforce development, a software driven world presents significant challenges in determining and projecting what occupations education training institutions should devote crucial, dwindling resources. More “engineers” or “more STEM” workers isn’t necessarily the right answer. After a frank discussion with my friend, who is a network engineer at AT&T, he is certain his current job won’t be around for much longer as software defined networking technology rolls out to the major internet service providers. This is indicative of the new automating technology that is being developed across the country. It is extremely sophisticated and indiscriminant in its ability to replace functions whether it is routinized tasks on the factory floor or, increasingly, specialized skill-sets once thought of as the last bastion of stable employment. Automation is so far reaching because of its audacious goal: to construct a computerized being equal in intelligence to our own. Over the short-term, routinized jobs are certainly the most susceptible. A study out of Oxford University found the following five occupations most susceptible to automation: 

1. Telemarketers 

2. Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers 

3. Sewers, Hand 

4. Mathematical Technicians 

5. Insurance Underwriters 

Indeed, susceptibility of all 702 occupations identified in the study is worth the read. Over the short-term (say the next ten to twenty years) it does give a sense of the occupations that will be completely replaced by current and pending technologies and those that will demonstrate a degree of resiliency. Whether resilient occupations stick around over the long-term is anyone’s guess. Given the sheer amount of unknowns surrounding new technologies, workforce training flexibility is key. Unfortunately, given the structure of our educational system – flexibility is not necessarily its defining characteristic. Nonetheless, workforce retraining and reskilling programs that specifically target displaced workers will be critical to sustain a vibrant economy while technology drastically alters the labor market. 

Workforce development isn’t the only interesting challenge automation and robotics presents to community and economic development professionals. Business retention and expansion (BRE) practices will naturally have to evolve in order to make way for an increasingly technologically sophisticated workplace. This is most clear in manufacturing-focused regional economies throughout the nation. As technology continues to weave its way onto the factory floor, manufacturers’ location requirements will look shockingly similar to a high-tech company.[1] Moreover, automation affords economic development professionals immense opportunities to assist manufacturers in expanding and diversifying their core businesses. For instance, a ball bearings company located in Sweden recently added tiny sensors to their products – allowing them to sell performance data to their customers. Thus, along with providing the initial ball bearing, the manufacturer also sells services to reduce maintenance costs and machine downtime. The future of manufacturing is equal parts producer, tech company, and service provider. This offers immense BRE opportunities to assist local companies in transforming their local economies: whether it is new industrial infrastructure necessary for interconnected industrial devices (aka: the “industrial internet of things”) or linking manufacturers with research and development resources to make their transition into a tech-focused operation. 

The community and economic development landscape will change considerably in the future. As a profession, we must remain ever vigilant of the technological changes that stand to disrupt not only business models but entire occupational categories. As the nature of work evolves, so too must the community and economic developers’ toolbox. Certain tools will remain important to shaping economic development investment, such as tax incentives, while new tools will need to be developed to more effectively retain and reskill the technologically displaced. Developing and increasing innovation capacity will equally be critical. In the short-term, perhaps a generation long, the employment and economic landscape will likely be challenging and uncertain. As machines take up more of the workload over the long-term, it could free us to dream the extraordinary and accomplish it in short order. Only time will tell. 

[1] Albeit with less demand for hip coffee shops