One Excellent Way to Prepare for Automation

Inspired by Digital Future of Work Summit convened by NYU Stern and McKinsey & Company.

Problem: McKinsey & Company, a management consultancy firm, found that nearly 50% of tasks that people are paid to do could be automated by machines with modern technology. When a human task could be replaced by a machine, it usually is. Machines are more precise, efficient, and don’t need an HR department. This state of affairs is concerning for people who could become unemployed because of increased automation. It is also concerning for the rest of us because people are kind and care about the plight of fellow Americans and because people facing economic anxiety make decisions that affect everyone.

Solution: Many proposed. No consensus.

One idea is to teach people career-building skills that will make them more adaptable to whatever the future brings. These career-building skills would go beyond resume tips and networking workshops. They would help people understand their potential and the myriad of options that exist for them. Most importantly, this teachings would demystify the career-building process. Personally, as a freshly-minted adult, I am amazed that generations of capable grown-ups have built an education system that does so little to prepare young people for the most important challenge of their lives: building a career. (And I majored in Philosophy, so I certainly understand the beauty of learning for learning’s sake.) I would like to see a How to Get a Job class mandatory in every high school. I want it to be a mandatory credit in college. (Especially if someone decides to major in Philosophy.) I want to see free classes for low-income Americans and Americans at risk of losing their jobs to automation.

Even if increased automation does not take away the net-sum of available work, the nature of jobs is rapidly changing and the population needs to be prepared for this. A middle-aged miner whose job was replaced by a robot might have a hard time finding work not because a good paying job doesn't exist, but because 15 years at the same company has rendered him ill-prepared to job-hunt today.

The advantage of this career-building intervention is that it gives workers greater control of their fate, despite whatever unpredictable future changes to the economic landscape emerge. We would empower people to feel in control of the situation regardless of how the economic landscape evolves. I also like this approach more than only focusing on building STEM-skills. STEM is important, but it will always account for a minority of available jobs.

I understand that this solution might seem trite compared to bold proposals like giving everyone a universal basic income. I don’t think that career-building skills will solve everything. However, this type of knowledge, which is currently only available for the few, will become necessary for all. Knowing how to build a career is a privilege that we don’t often hear about, though it’s the advantage I was most jealous of as a young immigrant. As we move toward a world where secure & multi-generational 9-to-5 jobs could shrink, I would love to have my taxes invested in a program that helps people navigate their careers.

Outstanding questions:

  1. Are there any concerns with the McKinsey study?
  2. What would this training involve? How early should it start? I have some ideas and would love to hear others.
  3. How much of this exists already? I know work is being done, where has the wheel already been invented?