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World Economic Forum - robots will take jobs, but upskilling will put humans ahead...if we do it properly

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 16, 2018
A major future of work report from the World Economic Forum puts skills investment top of the corporate and governmental agenda.

The robots are coming and they’re going to create more jobs than they destroy - around 58 million more by 2020 according to the latest study out of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

It’s a commendably pragmatic report - The Future of Jobs 2018 - in which there are yings and there are yangs. The basic math is simple enough - 75 million existing roles look set to be displaced by automation, but there’s the potential for 133 million new ones to be created, leaving a net balance of 58 million new jobs. The report states:

While these estimates and the assumptions behind them should be treated with caution, not least because they represent a subset of employment globally, they are useful in highlighting the types of adaptation strategies that must be put in place to facilitate the transition of the workforce to the new world of work. They represent two parallel and interconnected fronts of change in workforce transformations: 1) large-scale decline in some roles as tasks within these roles become automated or redundant, and 2) large-scale growth in new products and services—and associated new tasks and jobs—generated by the adoption of new technologies and other socio-economic developments such as the rise of middle classes in emerging economies and demographic shifts.

What will emerge is a new variant on the question of the optimal work/life balance in the form of what will be the best human/robot balance in the workplace. According to data from companies questioned for the WEF report, humans will be looking at performing around 58% of “task hours” in 2022, down from a current estimate of 71%.

At the same time, machines will execute 42% of tasks, up from 29% today, although the impact here will vary between job roles. The report notes:

In 2018, in terms of total working hours, no work task was yet estimated to be predominantly performed by a machine or an algorithm. By 2022, this picture is projected to have somewhat changed, with machines and algorithms on average increasing their contribution to specific tasks by 57%.

For example, by 2022, 62% of organization’s information and data processing and information search and transmission tasks will be performed by machines compared to 46% today. Even those work tasks that have thus far remained overwhelmingly human—communicating and interacting (23%); coordinating, developing, managing and advising (20%); as well as reasoning and decision-making (18%)—will begin to be automated (30%, 29%, and 27% respectively).



If you want to have solid job prospects against this backdrop, the WEF picks out roles that will be in demand,including:

Data Analysts and Scientists, Software and Applications Developers, and Ecommerce and Social Media Specialists, roles that are significantly based on and enhanced by the use of technology. Also expected to grow are roles that leverage distinctively ‘human’ skills, such as Customer Service Workers, Sales and Marketing Professionals, Training and Development, People and Culture, and Organizational Development Specialists as well as Innovation Managers. Moreover, our analysis finds extensive evidence of accelerating demand for a variety of wholly new specialist roles related to understanding and leveraging the latest emerging technologies: AI and Machine Learning Specialists, Big Data Specialists, Process Automation Experts, Information Security Analysts, User Experience and Human-Machine Interaction Designers, Robotics Engineers, and Blockchain Specialists.


It won’t escape notice that there’s a fairly obvious need for upskilling and training to bolster the workplace gene pool there. The WEF estimates that by 2022, more than half (54%) of employees are going to need significant retraining, with over a third of that number (35%) needing at least six months worth of effort:

Skills continuing to grow in prominence by 2022 include analytical thinking and innovation as well as active learning and learning strategies. Sharply increasing importance of skills such as technology design and programming highlights the growing demand for various forms of technology competency identified by employers surveyed for this report. Proficiency in new technologies is only one part of the 2022 skills equation, however, as ‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation will likewise retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving. Emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence as well as service orientation also see an outsized increase in demand relative to their current prominence.

The bad news? According to the WEF findings, nearly a quarter of companies are undecided or unlikely to pursue the retraining of existing employees, while two-thirds say they’ll expect workers to adapt and pick up skills on the job, rather than getting dedicated training. And more than half to two thirds of respondents are kidding themselves that there will be enough external contractors, temporary staff and freelancers to go around to make it unnecessary to worry about getting permanent employees skilled up.

But overall, the WEF takes an upbeat view of the potential impact, if companies and governments are ready to make the necessary investments in people and skills as well as tech, but warns that not doing so will create a more difficult scenario:

As technological breakthroughs rapidly shift the frontier between the work tasks performed by humans and those performed by machines and algorithms, global labour markets are likely to undergo major transformations. These transformations, if managed wisely, could lead to a new age of good work, good jobs and improved quality of life for all, but if managed poorly, pose the risk of widening skills gaps, greater inequality and broader polarization.

As for lurid ‘robot revolution’ headlines and Elon Musk-style scaremongering, the WEF report takes a measured stance here, noting that use cases for humanoid robots is limited over the period covered by the survey, but robotic automation will make advances:

Robot adoption rates diverge significantly across sectors, with 37% to 23% of companies planning this investment, depending on industry. Companies across all sectors are most likely to adopt the use of stationary robots, in contrast to humanoid, aerial or underwater robots, however leaders in the Oil & Gas industry report the same level of demand for stationary and aerial and underwater robots, while employers in the Financial Services industry are most likely to signal the planned adoption of humanoid robots in the period up to 2022.

(The report is based on responses from CEOs, HR Officer and strategy executives from more than 300 global cross-industry companies, representing more than 15 million employees.)

My take

An interesting read, with some solid findings. The emphasis on upskilling and training is the main takeaway for me, not just at corporate level, but also at governmental and national level. Policy makers need to get focused on this upcoming need. The problem I suspect is that we’ve had decades of warnings about skills shortages and very little has been done. There will be a temptation among many to tackle this with the minimum of effort. But we’re talking another Industrial Revolution here. There’s no room for complacency.

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