Robotics, A.I will create 58 million jobs, decimate middle-class careers: World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum predicts nearly 60 million extra jobs will be created by 2022, thanks to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

A new WEF report, The Future of Jobs 2018, says that 75 million jobs will be displaced by artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and automation, but suggests that 133 million new jobs may be created as organisations shift the balance between human workers and machines: a net gain of 58 million.

Read our separate report on the WEF survey for technology adoption trends.

Middle-class bloodbath?

While many people believe that routine, low-skilled jobs will fall to the machines first, the WEF paints a bleak future for many roles that were once considered safe, middle-class careers. Financial analysts, accountants, auditors, lawyers, bank tellers, statistical, finance, and insurance clerks, general managers, business services managers, administrators, and executive secretaries are all listed under “redundant roles” over the next five years.

Manual assembly/factory workers will also be among the hardest hit, along with car, van, and motorcycle drivers – a major challenge in the US, where driving is the most common job in many states.

Among the roles taking their place over the next few years will be data analysts, AI and machine learning specialists, innovation and digital transformation experts, robotics professionals, user experience and interaction designers, process automation experts, and what the WEF calls “people and culture specialists” – all roles that machines would find hard to replicate.

“Relative to their starting point today, the expansion of machines’ share of work task performance is particularly marked in reasoning and decision-making; administering; and looking for and receiving job-related information,” says the report. “The majority of an organisation’s information and data processing and information search and transmission tasks will be performed by automation technology.”

The flexible future

The WEF surveyed CEOs, strategic executives, and HR managers from more than 300 global companies across a broad range of industries in 20 countries and regions. Its findings predict a shift away from full-time work and towards more flexible, contract-based gig-economy employment, with an overall focus on productivity.

“By 2022, 38 percent of businesses surveyed expect to extend their workforce to new productivity-enhancing roles, and more than a quarter expect automation to lead to the creation of new roles in their enterprise,” says the report.

“In addition, businesses are set to expand their use of contractors doing task-specialised work, with many respondents highlighting their intention to engage workers in a more flexible manner, utilising remote staffing beyond physical offices and decentralisation of operations.

“Respondents expect increased job creation in such project-based, temporary and freelancing roles, pointing to structural labour market transformations in terms of contractual arrangements and employment relations, as well as occupational profiles.

“In summary, while overall job losses are predicted to be offset by job gains, there will be a significant shift in the quality, location, format, and permanency of new roles.”

Managing transformation

Two investment decisions will be crucial to shaping the future of jobs, says the WEF: whether to prioritise the automation or augmentation of roles, and whether or not to invest in workforce re-skilling.

Many providers of cognitive services, such as Microsoft and IBM, stress that their own focus is on ‘man plus machine’, not ‘man vs. machine’ – augmentation of human skills, rather than replacement. However, a number of recent surveys have found that many on the buy side of the equation see Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies as an opportunity to slash costs rather than make their businesses smarter.

In the long term, this suggests that the real battleground will be skills and education, and whether employers are prepared to invest in re-skilling their workforce for a new age of automation augmented by human skills, rather than human skills augmented by technology – in some cases against the advice of technology suppliers.

The report says, “Rather than narrowly focusing on automation-based labour cost savings, an augmentation strategy takes into account the broader horizon of value-creating activities that can be accomplished by human workers, often in complement to technology, when they are freed of the need to perform routinised, repetitive tasks and better able to use their distinctively human talents.

“The most relevant question to businesses, governments and individuals is not to what extent automation will affect current employment numbers, but how and under what conditions the global labour market can be supported in reaching a new equilibrium in the division of labour between human workers, robots, and algorithms. Workforce planning and investment decisions taken today will play a crucial role in shaping this process.”

However, maximising the gains and minimising the losses from this shift requires coherent action not only from policy-makers, but also from companies to find “win-win solutions for workers and for their bottom lines”, says the WEF.

Workers with in-demand skills ready for augmentation may see their wages and job quality increase considerably, adds the report. However, it warns: “Even if automation only affects a subset of the tasks within their job role, workers lacking appropriate skills to adapt to new technologies and move on to higher value tasks may see their wages and job quality suppressed by technology, steadily eroding the value of their jobs.

“Central to the success of any workforce augmentation strategy is the buy-in of a motivated and agile workforce, equipped with future-proof skills to take advantage of new opportunities through continuous retraining and up-skilling.”

Technology: the only focus?

Technology skills underscore the future job market. “The sharply increased 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,” confirms the WEF.

However, proficiency in new technologies will be just one part of the 2022 skills picture. Intuitive human skills, such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will retain or increase their value, says the WEF, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility, and complex problem-solving.

“Emotional intelligence, leadership, and social influence, as well as service orientation will also see an outsized increase in demand relative to their current prominence,” says the report.

Plus: China to receive massive AI jobs boost, says PwC

In related news, professional services giant PwC has published new research at the World Economic Forum this week predicting that AI, robotics, and automation will add 93 million jobs to the Chinese economy in the longer term – by 2037.

This represents a 12 percent net boost to the economy.

While recent PwC analysis has suggested that the long-term employment impact of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies will be neutral in established economies such as the UK, China will benefit from its much larger population, central investment, and comparative lack of legacy infrastructure.

Services in particular will thrive on the back of the new technologies, says the report.

Internet of Business says

If the WEF is correct – and we agree with their overall analysis – the employee of the future would appear to be a flexible, creative, emotionally intelligent contract worker who understands AI, robotics, and automation, and has deep analytical and experience design skills. This begs the questions of whether the education system in many countries is currently set up to produce such workers, and whether the vocational focus of many policymakers will be fit for purpose in the coming decade.

Chris Middleton: Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.
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