Who said this?
‘Today we stand on the threshold of a new industrial revolution - the revolution of automation. This is a revolution bright with hope of a new prosperity for labour and a new abundance for America. But it is also a revolution which carries the dark menace of industrial dislocation, increasing unemployment and deepening poverty.’
Elon Musk? Satya Nadella? Mark Zuckerberg? Or Number 35 himself, John F. Kennedy…
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Today’s fears about automation — be it software or hardware — is only the latest in a long trend of technological fears. Just think about the 19th-century Luddites walloping all the machinery that replaced, or threatened to replace, them. Or how, today, politicians squirm at the thought of end-to-end encryption (though they refuse to understand how it works and bizarrely believe the laws of mathematics don’t universally apply).
Mass automation heralds, depending on who’s wagging their chin, either a future bright with hope or dark with menace. But most of that fear is predicated on two premises: That automation destroys, rather than creates jobs and that the employment market is static.
Search ‘automation’ online.
How long before you see an article declaring that machines threaten absolutely every livelihood in the world?
When I performed my search, it was the sixth entry on the first page, right after Wikipedia’s overview, automation.com and a series of dictionary definitions.
These stories, that foretell the fall of man at the hands of machines like some automated Tolkienesque tale, make irresistible headlines.
With its existing focus on employment, that got me wondering: What about the impact of automation on training?
A force for good
Automation is a crazy good thing when you want to cut down on repetitive, routine tasks, like crunching numbers, filing reports, personalised mass marketing comms, or extrapolating customer data. All incredibly important stuff for serious companies; all pretty mind-numbing administrative tasks that take tons of time away from an employee’s other work. The business case for automating processes is ridiculously easy to make.
However, these jobs are important for another reason: Once upon a pre-automated time, these tasks were undertaken by junior learning their craft. This basic work laid the foundation for their entire career.
So, we either pop automation back into the technological bottle or we think about changing the way we train.
Happily, ‘the number of jobs in science, research, engineering and technology (STEM) will grow at double the rate of other careers.’ Or, as Nida Broughton of think-tank the Social Market Foundation, says in the same piece:
‘Investments in infrastructure and the pace of technological innovation means growth in science, research, engineering and technology careers will continue to outpace other occupations. That’s a big opportunity… and a challenge for the UK’s industrial strategy. It’s essential that we invest in the skills and training so that the UK can meet this demand.’
Businesses are hyper-aware of the effects of automating elements of their work, and even digital-based companies that tried to operate on a largely automated workforce, such as Facebook and YouTube, have discovered it’s simply not possible to leave all the work for a robot. We need to encourage the next gen (employees, not Star Trek) and one of the best ways to do that is ensure they’re given the training they need; training fit for the 21st century.
Just look at places like AT&T are investing heavily in existing employees (rather than wiping out their workforce in favour of machines and millennials). Amazon, too, currently offer Career Choice — that’s where they pay 95% of an employee’s tuition fee when they earn ‘certificates and associate degrees in high-demand occupations such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies, nursing, and many other fields.’
One of the finest examples comes from Kentucky, where coal miners were losing their jobs at a rapid rate. Dropping like ducks in a shooting gallery, in fact, at a rate of two-to-one. How do we save a dying industry?
…Reskilling, of course.
As far back as 2013 (remember those days?), businesses were assessing how ‘The Cloud’ would change IT roles. Four years on, the words of Dr. Joseph Reger, Fujitsu’s Chief Technology Officer, still ring true in today’s newly automated world of work:
‘If cloud is set to touch all aspects of IT, then it makes perfect sense to me that existing IT skills can be reused relatively easy. The primary job for CIOs, as I see it, is not the creation of entirely new skill sets — although that must happen over the longer term — but the upgrading of the skills that they already have today.’
These days, ‘The Cloud’ is everywhere, and we didn’t see millions of IT roles disappear; they simply evolved.
The US Department of Labor helped fund the poorly acronymic HOME (Helping Our Miners Everyday), with the intent to help coal miners ‘discover their skills, determine new career options, covers costs for them to enter classroom training, and helps place them into subsidized on-the-job training positions with area employers.’
Specifically, this was ‘a training program for the eastern Kentucky region itself, transitioning workers from a declining industry into roles that contribute to making the region more productive for future industries.’ That included teaching miners to become electrical linemen and taking them ‘from coal to code.’ We’re likely to see more of these initiatives in the coming years — particularly when you consider that many fear the introduction of driverless lorries will decimate American trucking.
UK businesses are just as serious about providing new training opportunities for employers. According to the Government’s annual Employer Skills Survey, ‘two-thirds of employers (66 per cent) had funded or arranged training or development for their staff.’
And with 118 million days spent on training in 2015, there’s a keen focus on eLearning and online training. Although an under-utilisation of existing skills and qualifications is present, for various reasons, the paper is quick to pose the question of whether, by adapting to modern-day working practices and roles, ‘there could be opportunities for them to better utilise the skills and qualifications that are already available to them within their organisation.’ In other words, businesses recognise the need to ensure their workforce is skilled — we’re on our way — but there’s more work to be done.
Far from witnessing a training apocalypse, technology, particularly automation, is driving businesses to invest even further in corporate education (that’s just a fancy-pants way of saying L&D, by the way). According to a 2016 study from Bersin by Deloitte, ‘L&D spending has grown in double-digits for four years in a row’, while investment in learning technologies grew by 21% in 2014.
Let’s not forget…
There are three other factors at play here, that very few doom-mongers and nay-sayers mention when predicting the true and total collapse of 21st-century civilisation at the hands of robots.
The cost-benefit factor: Just because businesses can automate, doesn’t mean they will. It’s worth, then, using a tool like an ROI calculator to find out how much return-on-investment a company can reasonably expect.
Perception: If customers or clients simply don’t want to deal with automated systems, they’ll take their business elsewhere, forcing businesses to change tack.
And most importantly…
Most jobs of tomorrow don’t exist today: According to US Department of Labor, 65% of schoolchildren today will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet. For all the Project Fear-ism, automation is still an unknown quantity; impossible to predict job losses when those jobs don’t yet exist.
But introducing the right sort of training now is a step in the right direction. Already, in the training world, the concept of the four C’s — critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration — are gaining traction. These are areas where humans out-perform machines. As Forbes reported, business tech company Accenture Strategy looked at the situation and found:
‘Paradoxically, the truly human skills, from leadership to creativity, will remain highly relevant and winning organizations will strike the right balance — leveraging the best of technology to elevate, not eliminate their people. Not only are workers optimistic, but they understand they must learn new skills. Digital can accelerate learning by embedding training seamlessly into daily work — so learning becomes a way of life — helping workers and organizations remain relevant.’
I’m confident that automation is a net job creator — yes, even despite all those apocalyptic predictions. But we still need to do more to encourage and nurture the workforce, training them in skills that allow them to interact with 21st-century technology in a meaningful way.