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Preparing For The Future Of Work: David McCool of Muzzy Lane On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work

An Interview with Phil La Duke

The blurring of personal and professional boundaries in workers’ lives. One consequence of remote work is that we now bring our coworkers and customers into our homes on a regular basis. For many people this works out fine, but it definitely exposes our lives in a more intimate way than was true when we were going to the office. It also blurs the line between when we’re working and when we’re not. Are we ever truly “off the clock” in this model?

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview David McCool.

David McCool is President and CEO of Muzzy Lane. Since founding the company, David’s goal has been to build technology that empowers authors to create “no coding required” online simulations that develop and auto-assess skills. He can be reached at dave@muzzylane.com.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I was born in New York and when I was 12 moved to Wisconsin, so I spent a lot of my early life on both the East Coast and in the Midwest. I think that was pretty formative to see the differences between those two places, differences which are obviously even more highlighted these days than they were 50 years ago.

I also sort of lucked into computers really early. I had a TRS-80 model I Radio Shack computer when I was about 10 that I bought with paper route money and some help from my parents. So I had a cassette recorder and 4K of RAM and programs that were all in BASIC that you could just list on the screen whenever you wanted to. So I’ve used computers for as long as I can remember, which is relatively rare for someone who’s now 57. Watching all the evolutions of computing, how they’ve gotten faster and how they’ve been networked, has always been a part of my life.

My first jobs out of college were also all in the networking and telecom space. I was building hardware, software, telecom, and networking solutions. At that point in the late ’80s, the internet wasn’t a huge thing. We only had dial-up bulletin board services, which seem primitive today. I was lucky enough to be there at the early stages, when computers were just about to become a big part of life and work. Today, you can’t imagine a computer without a network.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

For me, the first disruption that is already underway comes from AI, machine learning, and automation. Entry level jobs are being automated, and it’s not always AI. Sometimes it’s just simply software or new processes, like self-serve checkout or self-service gas stations. We have this whole strata of entry-level jobs disappearing.

I think about game development, where we spend a lot of time at Muzzy Lane, and people who go to school for game design degrees. But people don’t hire game designers fresh out of college. They just don’t get all the skills they need in academic programs. Companies hire those new graduates for things like quality-assurance roles, where they can test games and learn more about the industry and the actual work of game design and development. So they work those entry-level jobs and then work their way up, except that now those entry-level jobs are also being automated.

My question is this: what are employers going to do when that first tier of jobs for relatively unskilled fresh graduates disappears? There’s going to be a gap between those graduating and the more skilled positions. How do we fix that? There’s a lot of conversation around skills these days that I think is being driven by this process, but it’s a tough problem that’s going to lead to huge change, including an increase in apprenticeships, both in-person and remote.

We’re in the middle of the second big disruption right now as remote work has grown as a result of the pandemic. The cat’s out of the bag on this one already. Everyone’s realizing that it does work and people are actually productive from home.

It’s also just cheaper to allow people to work remotely. Companies can buy a bunch of expensive office space in some city’s downtown and pay for heat and electricity and cleaning and maintenance, or they can allow their employees to work in their own homes. Now that they see that people are actually productive from home, I don’t think employers are going to let go of the advantages. They’re just too enticing. I think employers should embrace this change and integrate it into their processes. It’s similar to how education will probably always be blended now that everyone has experienced online learning.

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

When I was younger, the prevailing attitude was that college was not for everyone. Most people didn’t go to college because it was something people only did if they wanted to go into certain careers. If someone wanted to be a plumber or an electrician or an auto worker, they just went to work.

Over the course of my lifetime I’ve seen that change as the result of something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone started talking about all this data that showed people who went to college made a lot more money than those who didn’t. As a result, there was this big push to encourage everyone to go to college so everyone could earn more money.

But there were two problems with this. First, that increased earning power may have come from the career paths college grads were choosing and not the actual college experience that led to more income. Second, college just continued to get more and more expensive, so that today it’s hard to just take it on faith that going to college without a real plan is going to be a sound financial decision. As a result, I think we’re seeing society pulling back a bit on the idea that everyone needs to go to college.

I don’t think it’s the right decision for everyone, and the questions I suggest young people ask themselves are: Why are you going to college? What purpose will it serve in your individual career plans? Is it worth the debt that you will accrue? What will you do next?

I think it was just taken for granted for a long time that college is good and employers love college grads and will hire them, but I don’t think that’s enough any more.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

This is a timeless question. Every time I speak at colleges or career events and people ask me this kind of thing I always say, “Get as much practical experience as you can. As an employer, when I get your resume and all you’ve told me is what courses you took and your GPA, I don’t have a clear picture of how you can actually help my company.”

What I want to know is what have you done? Is there any evidence that you have some practical skills that we could put to work on the problems we’re trying to solve? This is why things like apprenticeships and internships are so important. They offer so many opportunities for young people to produce something of value alone or as part of a team. I need people who can contribute right away, and the more I can see evidence that an applicant has done that before, the easier it is for me to make that hiring decision.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

You just have to be able to develop and demonstrate that you have skills. Many people would say those skills should be tilted toward soft skills (also known as 21st-century skills) and I think that’s probably true.

I watched my daughter trying to break into the job market after college this past year, and just getting past the automated screening process and into an interview is especially difficult. The ability to demonstrate that you’ve acquired skills, and especially skills that a computer cannot do, is crucial.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

I absolutely see this trend continuing. It’s just irreversible at this point. It’s more flexible for everyone involved, it’s more efficient and cheaper for employers. In some ways it may be more expensive for employees if they have to pay for their internet connection or other expenses, but community costs such as childcare are reduced and they have much lower transportation costs and a lower impact on the environment.

It may be somewhat uneven because there will be holdouts and reactionaries in the business world who think they need to keep an eye on employees, but the ship has sailed on this.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

I think one of the biggest changes is that jobs are becoming more distributed. The full-time 50-year career isn’t really there anymore. Many, many more people have more than one job than in the past. They have part-time jobs, project work, and conditional work. I think the safety net question is a real problem in that kind of environment. The fact that healthcare is tied to work is a significant problem for the way work is evolving. It’s never been great to begin with, but it’s getting worse as fewer people have long term, full-time jobs that provide health care. Tying that to employers is going to get more and more problematic.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

For employers, the loss of oversight and control is going to be pretty difficult to accept. Maybe electronically they’ll be able to regain some of it — and companies are certainly trying — but these attempts often feel more invasive in a way that employees are unlikely to put up with.

For employees, the hardest changes to accept are loss of job security and privacy. Our lives are becoming so much more connected to work with the way things are evolving. Every time I’ve had a meeting for the last year and a half, everyone I was in the meeting with saw inside my home. In a lot of companies, that is a de facto requirement now. We used to have a lot more separation between work and our personal lives, but that’s going away.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

I think there are two things the government somehow needs to make sure everyone has.

The first is healthcare. Among all the potential social legislation floating around such as free child care, universal pre-K, or free college, healthcare has always stood out to me as being a bit different. If you don’t have access to quality healthcare — if you have to worry about dying because you can’t go to the doctor — that is going to trump everything else in your life. You can’t worry about anything else. I think the government is going to have to play some role in ensuring everyone has adequate healthcare, but we don’t seem particularly good at making it happen.

The second thing is broadband. In a world of distributed work and school, everyone needs access to high-speed internet. Looking back to the emergence of telephones, it seems likely the government will need to be involved here, too. It wasn’t profitable for private companies to go into rural areas and build phone lines, so the government went ahead and did it so those folks wouldn’t have to travel 50 miles just to use a phone. I think getting everyone access to broadband is going to require the same kind of collective action.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Technology has enabled so many opportunities for people that just didn’t exist before. It’s connected the world in a way that opens so much up to individuals. We’re no longer geographically constrained in our opportunities, which makes meaningful work much more accessible for so many people. We may have to do a lot of work to take advantage of some of those opportunities, but in the old world they weren’t even there to pursue.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

Training for skills rather than roles is in vogue right now and I think that’s our best shot at mitigating this challenge.

If you’ve been trained for a role that gets automated or disappears for some other reason, then you have to be retrained for a new role and then go find a new job. If you’re trained in skills and you know what those skills are, then you can connect those skills to a different role and find a new job relatively quickly. It may be the same individual with the same work history, but in one future they identify as a senior QA engineer and in another as someone who’s great at creative problem-solving, project management, and collaboration — and has specific examples of putting those skills to work successfully.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Automation, which includes AI and machine learning. Automation is causing major disruption in the world of work. Whole categories of jobs are disappearing and new categories of jobs are appearing. Employees need to be more aggressive about identifying the skills needed for these new jobs and make sure they have them and can make that visible to employers.
  2. The move to virtual and remote work. The pandemic forced work to become remote at a pace we had not seen before. Two impacts of this were that more people saw that remote work is possible, and it exposed the weaknesses which created market opportunities for companies to solve.
  3. An increased focus on soft skills as an employability requirement. As automation and the rate of change in the job market increase, the value balance of skills is shifting from hard skills to soft skills. Employees are constantly being trained on new systems and processes, and the ones with the strongest soft skills will be best equipped to navigate those changes.
  4. The move to gig and contingent work, or holding several part-time or temporary jobs as opposed to full-time jobs. Technology is enabling a looser connection between employers and employees, and has hastened the rise of what would previously have been known as “contractors.” This gig work has extended to all parts of the economy and has large implications for workers stability, benefits, and retirement.
  5. The blurring of personal and professional boundaries in workers’ lives. One consequence of remote work is that we now bring our coworkers and customers into our homes on a regular basis. For many people this works out fine, but it definitely exposes our lives in a more intimate way than was true when we were going to the office. It also blurs the line between when we’re working and when we’re not. Are we ever truly “off the clock” in this model?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

One thing that we always said to our kids when they were growing up was that being kind is the most important thing. I think kindness is the most important thing that any of us can offer.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Elvis Costello. I love Elvis Costello because I love lyrics, and I would be excited to sit down and talk about how he came up with some of the lyrics in his songs, because especially the early stuff like “My Aim Is True” is just amazing. He is awesome, and the writing on that first album is still amazing to me nearly a half century after it came out.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter at @boogsarah or on LinkedIn.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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