Career Planning in an Era of Automation

In 2013 Oxford’s Martin School conducted a study of over 700 job types and came to the conclusion that 47% of all jobs could be automated within 20 years. Industry tech leaders are increasingly talking about the impact automation is going to have on society in the coming years. Bill Gates says robots should be taxed like human workers. Elon Musk (among many others) says a universal income for society will be necessary.

Driverless cars, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automated manufacturing are hinting at major disruptions to industries which employ millions of people. For young people in particular the future looks very uncertain. Employment prospects in many regions are already bleak. Youth unemployment is above 25% for a number of major EU countries including Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. Greece tops the list at an incredible 47% with Spain at 44%. These figures don’t take into account the growing number of young people underemployed, working less hours that they’d like, or in low skill jobs that do not utilize the training or skills they have. For young people just leaving school in these countries, pursuing a university degree may be their only hope of securing a well paid job, but if they are accumulating large debts to earn that degree, it becomes a risky decision. Right now, the supply of graduates exceeds demand and if indeed automation continues to erode good jobs, these countries face a major challenge in the coming years.

Aside from automation in low skill jobs, even well paid positions are at risk. LawGeex is an artificial intelligence powered platform for legal contract review. LawGeex can take a new contract that has never been seen before, read it, and then compare it to a database of every similar contract that its seen in the past. Today, much of this work is done my young lawyers, but in most cases LawGeex can process information and retrieve answers with far superior speed and accuracy than a human.

IT, which is a strong employment sector today, and many consider a safe bet for future employment prospects is at risk too. Many of today’s tech companies are able to do more with less through improving efficiencies of software programs. Many of the biggest tech companies employ a small number of employees, relative to their valuations. WhatsApp was sold to Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion and had only 55 employees.

Microsoft and Cambridge have been developing a project called DeepCoder, which is a self coding AI capable of its own encryption and coding language. Even at the early stages, DeepCoder is able to solve programming challenges that normally a human would solve. In reality, IT is likely to remain a strong employment sector for some time yet, but what looks likely is that projects which, for example, previously needed 50 employees will need 25. To add further concern, offshoring has become much easier in the last decade since high speed internet and improved communication services make it easier to hire foreign (and typically cheaper) workers. Even high skill jobs are susceptible to a growing, global talent pool.

If you’re a student at the early stages of academia, its very hard to imagine where your career will end up. Health care and education seem to be among the career paths with the least amount of uncertainty, since technology has yet to influence these industries like it has others. The high degree of social interaction and complexity involved with teaching, or caring for the sick, will make it difficult for automation to replace people in these jobs. If your chosen study path points to areas of business, technology, manufacturing, engineering or transport, it seems likely you’ll experience big changes in that sector over the next 20 years. This will probably make retraining necessary at some point, if jobs dry up or new technology replaces your skill set. Whereas many older workers today had to adapt to the internet and learn how to use new software applications, future workers could be forced to up skill significantly, so that a computer can not perform their job entirely.

The ‘career ladder’ is largely gone, and its very likely that career paths of the future will re route many times over. This begs the question of whether an expensive university degree, particularly those in a specific domain are worth it, since you’ll need to retrain at some point soon. But after you’ve done so, you could still be paying off the fees for a degree (and knowledge/skills) that are of no use in your new job. Perhaps a broad study area will give you more options as things change.

If it feels like technology has moved fast in the last 20 years, the pace is likely to be even faster in the next 20, as computers get faster and smarter every year. Career planning is very difficult to do with any degree of certainty. If the forecasted job losses are remotely accurate, academic institutions will come under huge pressure as qualifications are massively devalued. However, the impact of such job losses would affect all of society and require major interventions by world leaders, who might have big decisions to make, sooner than expected.

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