Only The Skills Will Save Us From The Robots

Only The Skills Will Save Us From The Robots

Probably we still hold in our minds images of an iconic movie Charles Chaplin released ninety years ago. In ‘Modern Times’, a poor factory worker struggled to carry on with his tasks due to the repetition of his work. It was representing the challenges the society was facing in the boom of the assembly factory labour. A work done by robotic-humans.

The pictures that come to our mind nowadays are quite different. Factories are not a busy place full of poor underpaid workers but a high-tech spaces where robotic arms and standardized tasks are made everyday with an amazing clock-timing.

The Dawn of the Robotic Era

Automation is just beginning, in our modern times. But if we look into it, it might just be the summit of a deeper and wider growing phenomenon. In a couple of decades there will be no jobs remaining, or just a few left. And that means, for those who criticise automation, that there will be less work for humans as they are being replaced by machines.

Looking into the expected future in job opportunities, it might sound dangerous. Moreover because popular narratives matter for economic outcomes, and a narrative of relentless technological displacement of labour markets risks chilling innovation and growth, at a time when productivity growth is flagging in developed countries.

Are the robots taking our jobs?

However, automation is not the problem itself in developed countries. It is a fact that rather that taking the jobs machines are helping to keep up with the production in factories. The robots thus are doing jobs that humans don’t do any more or they are not interested in doing.

Consider the implications of an ageing population. While much of the public debate on automation has focused on the potential for mass unemployment, it overlooks the fact that robots may be required to maintain economic growth in response to a lower labour force participation. The risk, in other words, may be that there will be fewer jobs, but that there will be few people to fill them, which may explain why countries undergoing more rapid population ageing tend to adopt more robots.

The Robot-Human Dichotomy

The Robot-Human Dichotomy

The problematic here is if those jobs, machines are taking over mean less opportunities for the people themselves and how the relationship between the two is going to be. Nesta, the UK agency for innovation, has undertaken a research trying to find out the possible outcome for such a sensitive issue.

In their research, they have found that rather than making definitive proclamations about the future of some occupations, they conclude that the majority of people (around 70 per cent) are in occupations with highly uncertain prospects.

Furthermore, roughly one-fifth are in occupations that are very likely to decline, while one-tenth are in occupations that are very likely to grow. The report states:

“This uncertainty is a critical dimension to our findings, because it suggests that the future of most occupations is not inevitable: individuals in different occupations can improve their labour market chances if they can invest in the skills that are right for their particular occupation.”

So far, any reconfiguration of skills (and knowledge) requirements entails an evolution of the occupation. Or put differently, occupations may need to be redesigned in order to make effective use of skills and knowledge complements, especially for occupations that have challenging futures.

Key Facts for a Brighter Skilled Future

That means that new labour opportunities will arise boosted by that reconfiguration of skills. Therefore, it is also useful to think about new occupations which may emerge in the future.

Technically, these occupations correspond to high-demand locations in the skills space that are distinct from existing occupations. “The classifier allows Nesta to identify hypothetical occupations. That would ’almost certainly’ experience an increase in workforce share and the combination of skills and knowledge variables most associated with them.”

The report concludes that skills investment must be at the centre of any long-term strategy for adjusting to structural change. A precondition is access to good quality. Transparent analysis of future skills needs, as without it, labour market participants and policymakers risk flying blind. The approach Nesta has developed is a step towards improving their understanding of this vital agenda. And thus one that invites a more pro-active reaction than the defensive one that has characterised discussions on automation in recent years.