Unofficial Business: How to stay employed in a robot world


Most of us apparently don’t believe we’re replaceable on the job.

At least not by a robot or algorithms and lines of code.

Two-thirds of Americans expect that in 50 years, computers and robots will do much of the work people do now, according to a recently released Pew Research Center survey. But a much bigger block of those surveyed said their own jobs and careers are safe from robotizing.

“That’s ego,” K.P. Reddy told me.

He’s chief executive of Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation, a young business that helps produce robotic systems to automate sewing in the textiles industry.

He’s done this automation thing before. An earlier company pushed more technology into the architecture industry, which allowed firms to shed drafting jobs.

Robots and other forms of automation already handle so much in our lives that we hardly register when they’re around.

At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, nobody with a pulse is driving the underground plane trains. Or sorting baggage below the airport. At customs, a kiosk grills passengers about what they have to declare and gets their fingerprints and photo before they get to a human agent.

I’m told the number of workers at the airport keeps growing. But there’s no doubt that in the broader world, robots will be taking more of our jobs. Lots more, eventually.

So I asked some smart people what we can do to avoid being robotized out of careers.

“Mediocre jobs performed by mediocre talent” will be at risk of being eliminated, Reddy told me.

So, for example, if you want to be a shoemaker, be an artisan who makes the finest, hand-crafted, unique shoes, he said.

Prepping the kids

Reddy is prepping his two teenage sons for what’s ahead.

He insists they get undergraduate engineering degrees (“it is the root of everything”), no matter what career they go into. He pushes them to be good in the arts, which he figures isn’t going to be automated. And he gets them into sports for the whole team work, perseverancy and competition thing.

It’s likely that robots will get cheaper, so more employers will buy them. More automation should make products and services cheaper.

What I don’t know is whether all the jobs that are killed will be replaced with even more new and innovative ones or whether there simply will be fewer jobs to go around.

Either way, the path to staying employed could get tougher.

Workers need to keep updating their skills to avoid obsolesence, Reddy said.

“This isn’t an ‘if’ question; it is a ‘when,’” he said. “Disrupt yourself or someone else will disrupt you.”

Plenty of change will be very gradual. And even when automation happens in a business, roughly 20 percent of a task may be tough to do without human intervention, said Elizabeth Mynatt, a professor and executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology.

That’s probably not wonderfully comforting if your job is reliant on the other 80 percent, though your employer could give you new duties.

Fellow Georgia Tech professor Henrik Christensen, who leads the university’s robotics institute, sees the next wave of automation as “empowering” for workers. He expects it will lead to more jobs in the future, some in areas we haven’t yet thought of.

Here is some of what Christensen and Mynatt see ahead:

 More pressure to refresh your skills throughout life.

 More importance on networking to keep abreast of changes and job options.

 More technology will look like video games, so Christensen likes kids honing memory and motor control skills with gaming. (Sorry, parents.)

 Basic knowledge of computers becomes even more crucial. Mynatt suggest more people should get versed in the fundamentals of data analytics. Yummy!

 Christensen predicts within five years coast-to-coast cargo planes will be pilot-less. Within 15 years he said he expects wide adoption of driver-less motor vehicles, risking big job losses for truck, taxi and Uber drivers. Mynatt also see a big fall off for driving work.

 The ranks of lots of jobs will shrink. Mynatt expects to see proportionately fewer jobs in information processing (such as some telemarketing jobs) and restaurant waiters. Christensen foresees fewer professors as more learning shifts online with some super professors teaching more people.

What jobs are a safer bet?

 CEOs, as a job, are safe, as are other top executive strategy positions, Christensen said. (They always manage to come out OK, don’t they?)

 Arts and other positions demanding creativity are more likely to last, Christensen predicts.

 Mynatt sees a growing demand for all kinds of jobs in health care, from surgeons to home health care workers, despite things like robots for surgery and perhaps for heavy lifting in personal care homes.

 Very localized, customized manufacturing is likely to add jobs, at least for a while, even as broader, bulk manufacturing continues to automate, Mynatt said.



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