Several years ago, Canary Pete’s political cartoon flooded email inboxes and social media pages. The humorous illustration showed a middle-aged executive walking into a typical job interview, with the exception that he had to build his own office chair (since he was applying to work at IKEA). Pete’s satire might be short-lived, as last week the robotics industry achieved a new milestone – building an IKEA chair in less than 10 minutes! It is unclear how soon bots will be replacing human assemblers like TaskRabbit, but in the the words of Jackie DeChamps, Chief Operating Officer of IKEA USA,”We are always looking at ways we can innovate and help make our customers’ lives at home easier.”
Addressing the elephant in the room, I debated a colleague earlier this month at The Frontier Conference in New Orleans. I expressed that it is critical for the mechatronic companies to engage early with organized labor for successful deployments. My co-panelist retorted by stating that the anxiety of mass unemployment from technology is overblown. To prove his point, he said ‘just look at the banking industry with ATMs.’ It is true there are more bank tellers employed today than ever before, challenging the premise of the 1980s that ATMS would be the death of local bank branches. However, these workers are no longer merely counting cash, instead the industry has re-skilled its employees to sell financial products to walk-in customers. Unlike the ATM industry that started in 1970 and peaked in the 1990s, automation is moving at a more accelerated rate leaving a quarter of global citizens with a skills deficit. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) “approximately 35% of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020.” The WEF further states that “such skills mismatches and skills churn have increased the need for adult skilling, reskilling and upskilling throughout a person’s career. By making the appropriate investments for optimizing the potential of the adult workforce at all stages of the career path, companies and societies can reap the benefits of productive, innovative and experienced employees who continue to adapt and deliver over time.”
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration updated the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) to broaden the reskilling initiative of federal employees. The new PMA states: “Although the impact of machine assistance varies by occupation, the use of automation has the potential to provide employees with time to focus on more important work. Reskilling and redeployment strategies may be required to shift staff time to higher value duties.” The Agenda further claims that five percent of federal occupations could be automated entirely; sixty percent could have more than thirty percent of their tasks completely eliminated by machines; and forty-five percent of the total work activities by the federal government could processed by artificial intelligence. The document proposes using AI-enabled software for transactional workflow, including: paperwork, constituent inquiries and government monitoring services. The Agenda sets a twelve month goal to identify three areas that are “most suited for automation, then pilot these automations” to drive cost savings. The announcement came days before Tax Day when the Internal Revenue Service’s computer servers crashed.
The Federal Government’s Agenda is representative of many corporate upskilling programs across the United States. The WEF study estimates that “63% of workers have indicated having participated in job-related training in the past 12 months,” however employers are still “reporting the highest talent shortages since 2007.” This disparity illustrates the inefficiency of the American current system that relies solely on employers for retraining.
In the movie Hidden Figures, Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the supervisor of NASA’s “colored” human calculators. One day Vaughan notices engineers installing large mainframe computers to replace her staff. Stealing the IBM manual, Vaughan retrains her entire workforce with the skills to operate the machines of the future. Today there are not enough Vaughans taking the initiative to upskill themselves. In fact, WEF reveals that “61% of adults surveyed by Pew had little or no awareness of the concept of distance learning, and 80% reported little or no awareness of massive open online courses.” While the President’s Agenda, and other corporate initiatives make great headlines for Wall Street, showcasing returns on investments, the WEF report questions the United States’ readiness for the fourth industrial revolution relative to other industrial nations.
One successful model cited by the WEF is the State of Singapore’s government programs to create a culture of lifelong learning. Established in 2001, Singapore formed the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund to enable its citizens with the economic means to have the resources to promote the acquisition of new skills. The WEF opines “Learning programs are most successful when all stakeholders have a stake in learning. Co-funded models between government and employers or co-funding coalitions of employers also hold strong promise for scale.” Singapore invests close to half a billion dollars annually in this endeavor. It has also created new government-led agencies such as the Skills Future Singapore Agency (SSG), the Workforce Singapore Agency, and the Employment & Employability Institute under the National Trades Union Congress to focus raising awareness, retraining, and employment opportunities. These agencies “help to identify key skills, develop training programs and work with training institutions and employers to participate in workforce development through various measures such as funding.” The WEF has frequently rated Singapore as the most tech-savvy country in the world.
Most children entering grammar school today will ultimately end up working at jobs that have yet to be created. However, if current technology trends continue, more than five million occupations could be lost for good in the United States by 2020. As only half of corporate America is investing in reskilling, many jobs are in the crosshairs of obsolescence. Rusty Justice of BitSource in Kentucky has successfully proven its ability to upskill unemployed coal miners with high-demand software coding skills. At SXSW he conveyed to me that the hardest part is empowering discouraged workers with the confidence to walk through the door to begin their journey of lifelong learning.