Episode 7: The Human Factor

As technology plays a greater role in the workplace, how can we ensure the future of work values humanity?

Artwork by Darren Garrett

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The world of work is changing. Technology is undoubtedly driving a lot of the change, but technology is nothing without people. While conversations are had about the development of automation and AI into the workplace, it’s essential we don’t forget the human factor.

If the pace of change continues, the idea of ‘a job for life’ may become a rarity as people will have to develop new skills throughout their working lives. In this episode we talk to students thinking about their futures, educators helping women develop new skills later in life, and workers whose day is controlled by an algorithm in an app.


Quotes From the Episode

“I absolutely do believe that the education industry has to adapt, has to change, has to be agile in calibrating to what the requirements are of some of these new, pretty seismic shifts in the workforce and in the workplace.” — Jyoti Chopra

“Perhaps the future of work and skills is in companies taking a proactive step into their employees’ educations and futures. One size does not fit all.” — Leigh Alexander

“One of the things I love the most about our work is that is that our students become so confident because they learn to build technology, and now they feel they have a super powerful tool, not only to get a job and start a career, but to also start solving the problems around them.” — Mariana Costa-Checa

“I think the challenge is you can have all these debates about whether AI and robots are the future of work. But I think a key issue is you need a broader range of people having those discussions about what we want and then how would you work towards that more democratic vision of the future.” — Tom Saunders


Featured Guests

Jyoti Chopra, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion for Pearson
Mariana Costa-Checa, co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria
Tom Saunders, a principal researcher — inclusive innovation team at NESTA
Antonio, Student

This week’s unsung hero is Juliana Rotich, founder of Ushahidi which creates open source crowd sourced tools for crisis information. Find out more about Juliana at julia.na


Episode Credits

Written and produced by Tracy King
Hosted by Leigh Alexander
Season Producer Renay Richardson
Exec Producer Nathan Martin
Exec Producer Anjali Ramachandran
Sound Design by Jason Oberholtzer and Michael Simonelli
Made by the team at Storythings



Transcript

HOST: Earlier this year actor Geoffrey Owens found himself in the middle of a social media storm when he was pictured bagging groceries at a branch of Trader Joe’s, a major American retailer.

GEOFFREY: “I’d been teaching, acting, directing for 30+ years but got to a point where it didn’t add up. And you know you gotta do what you gotta do. I wanted a job to try and get some flexibility to stay in the business.”

HOST: Accusations of ‘job shaming’ were followed by offers of acting work for the former Cosby Show star, who worked at the store between acting jobs. Owens told Good Morning America:

GEOFFREY: “No job is better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper, but actually it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”

HOST: Owen’s work ethic resonated across the world. Though few people fully understand what it’s like to have a career in show business, almost everyone understands the need to work. And while we all applaud his brilliant response to the media storm, we should also pay a little attention to his dynamic approach to work and skills.

The world of work is changing. Technology is undoubtedly driving a lot of that change. But technology is nothing without people. While we’re having these conversations about the development of automation and about AI entering the workplace, it’s essential we don’t forget that human factor. The lesson of Geoffrey Owens, that all work is valuable and all workers should be respected.

GEOFFREY: “I hope what doesn’t pass is this rethinking of what it means to work. The honour of the working person and the dignity and honour of work.”

HOST: In this episode of Nevertheless we’re going to ask how can those rethinking the future of work ensure that workers are not forgotten.

This is Nevertheless, a podcast about learning in the modern age. Each episode we shine a light on an issue impacting education and speak to the people creating transformative change. Supported by Pearson and hosted by me, Leigh Alexander.

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a question all children are expected to think about, at all stages in their education. But it’s not until their mid to late teens that they’re asked the question with a realistic career in mind. Decisions made at sixteen or eighteen can significantly affect the skills a young person enters the job market with, skills that are expected to carry them through a career for their entire life.

But there is no longer such a thing as a job for life, and there may not even be such a thing as a career for life. Technology is rapidly changing the way we think about work and skills, and young people today are faced with the prospect of knowing that the job they’re training for today may not exist in a few decades.

Predictions vary wildly, with one report from the World Economic Forum even claiming that two thirds of children entering primary school today will end up working in industries and job types that don’t even exist yet.

Is education adapting quickly enough to the changing landscape of technology and the future of work and skills?

JYOTI: I absolutely do believe that the education industry has to adapt, has to change, has to be agile in calibrating to what the requirements are of some of these new pretty seismic shifts in the workforce and in the workplace.

HOST: That’s Jyoti Chopra. She’s Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion for Pearson. We spoke to her about how companies can integrate education to respond to the challenges of skill shortages and developing technology.

JYOTI: In industry over the last decade there’s been a pretty seismic move to the development of institutionalizing learning and development within the corporate environment with many companies setting up in house universities establishing learning and development teams and focusing on the development and re-skilling of their own talent. One of most powerful case studies in this is the work that has been undertaken at AT&T under leadership of Randall Stephenson. Where AT&T over the last several years have made massive investments in the re-engineering, re-skilling, up-skilling of their own labour force.

HOST: As the company that built the telegraph infrastructure in the last century AT&T saw themselves a company ‘where the future was invented’. In this 1993 ad they predicted many versions of many of the technologies we are using today.

“Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away? Crossed the country without stopping for directions? Or sent someone a fax…from the beach? You will. And the company that will bring it to you is AT&T.”

HOST: In the last 10 years it had gone from being a voice network to a data network, from hardware to the cloud and from a landline business to a mobile-first enterprise.

In this period of rapid growth and change however, AT&T did a survey that told them that their workforce skill was not changing rapidly enough. In fact only half of their 250,000 employees had the necessary skills the company required for this new work. What’s more, 100,000 workers were in jobs having to do with hardware functions that probably wouldn’t exist in the next decade.

But rather than focusing their attention on recruiting new talent they began a $1billion multi-year effort to re-skill their workforce through collaborations with Coursera, Udacity and leading universities. The initiative also features a career centre that allows employees to identify and train for the kinds of jobs the company needs today and down the road.

JYOTI: So today for example, you have people at AT&T that had been working as project managers that are now qualified and enrolled surveying data scientists in the span of a very short period of time, and they’ve done it through a combination of strategic partnerships with academic institutions, in-house training and certification and through other mechanisms.

HOST: Perhaps the future of work and skills is in companies taking a proactive step into their employees’ educations and futures. One size does not fit all, and if young people leaving education no longer expect to find jobs for life, then employers need to find new ways to attract and retain them.

One of those ways is lifelong learning. A recent study by LinkedIn of over four thousand professionals states that 94% would stay in a company longer if it invested in their skills. Clearly, employees are keen to keep learning and developing over the working life, but for many the time and financial burden is too great. If the lifespan of skills is shortening, then companies must be the ones to invest in human factors like re-training or up-skilling, or risk losing their employees to competitors who will.

This is echoed by Jyoti Chopra, who is concerned companies don’t do enough to recognise the other human factors in the future of employment, not just the technological challenges or skill sets. If people are living longer, then retirement age will be later. Investing in people also means investing in their health, productivity, and happiness.

JYOTI: I serve on Toyota’s diversity advisory board and in recent years Toyota has made a pretty substantial investment in research and development, and established major academic institutional partnerships with Stanford University, MIT and the University of Michigan looking at research in and around the future of mobility and robotics and artificial intelligence. And here’s another very interesting case study. If you look at Toyota, one looks at it through the lens of one of the world’s leading automobile manufacturers. But a few years from now, where Toyota is heading is a big focus on the future of mobility. So in recognition of the fact that people are living longer. Thinking about what is it that people need in order to lead healthy, productive, agile, mobile lives.

HOST: If companies invest in their human workers through things like skills retraining and lifetime learning opportunities, then the future could be bright even as AI and automation sets in.

JYOTI: We’re going to see multiple generations in the workforce for years to come. People are going to have multiple careers in their lifetime and I think it’s exciting and it’s wonderful and there’s nothing to say that if you had been a physician or a doctor that you can’t become a data scientist or a technologist a few years down the road, if you choose to switch careers. There are people going to doing that today.

HOST: Across the world from Toyota, in Latin America, over 20 million women are not in employment, education or training. It’s a huge number, but one organisation is making major strides in helping women change careers and their own futures.

MARIANA: My name is Mariana. I am a social entrepreneur from Peru and I lead Laboratoria. We are a nonprofit organisation working to prepare young women from under-served backgrounds in Latin America to become software developers and then start a career in the tech sector.

HOST: Mariana Costa-Checa is co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria, a Latin American tech organisation which has trained over 800 women from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mariania’s achievements have been widely recognised. She has been named by MIT as one of Peru’s leading innovators, and by the BBC as one of the most influential women of 2016.

HOST: Let’s meet Maggie who joined Laboratoria and began a new career as a UX designer. With help from her interpreter, Maria, Maggie spoke to us about her experience.

MAGGIE: I’m Maggie. I work in a digital agency. I’m also a mum of four kids.

HOST: Before joining Laboratoria Maggie spent some time working in a bank. She got married and had four kids. At 40 Maggie faced a turning point in life.

MAGGIE: So, um, my grandma, my grandma died.

MARIA: Her grandma died. She died when she was 89 years old. So she started thinking. Questioning the fact that maybe she’s gonna live that long as well. What was she going to do for the next 40 years of her life?

HOST: So Maggie joined a Laboratoria coding bootcamp. At first she struggled.

MAGGIE: When I was in the bootcamp my scores were not very good. Okay. I tried, I was trying.

MARIA: The person in charge of the program came to her and explained that maybe she wasn’t going to be able to graduate with the recommendation because she wasn’t getting there yet. But they really liked her attitude. She was really good at working in a team and talking with people. So they explained the opportunity of studying UX design. So she joined with nine more students where we train them UX designers, and then we find them a job. So she actually started to learn about UX and she really fell in love with it because of what she did in her last job at the bank. She was talking to a lot of clients and finding out their needs and actually the research that she has to do now has a lot to do with that. So she started to learn more about it and she really liked it. So that’s why she decided to go for it.

HOST: By getting to know Maggie as a person and having an understanding of her human qualities as well as the transferable skills, Laboratoria was able to guide Maggie towards UX design and help her find a career she loves. Maggie hopes her experience inspires her children and others like her.

MARIA: So she’s saying that she’s probably showing them that they need to find something that they really like and feel passionate about. She remembers that her father told her that she needed to find a career that will give her economic stability, financial stability, but she realizes that she needs to find something that they like and feel passionate about it about it. So for example, her son wants to study cinematography. Here in Lima there isn’t much of a market for it, but she’s still encouraging him to study what she really likes. Do what he really feels passionate about. And maybe because at 18, like we were talking about a little bit before, you are too young to decide what you actually want to do for the rest of your life. So she’s also an example that it’s never too late to start again and to try something new that you really liked.

MARIANA: They know nothing about coding, it looks so foreign, so difficult. And a few weeks into a program they’re already building their first websites. They have a product they can show to the world and I think that that is something that very few things give you that, you know, they go out on their own like, look mum, I built this up, you know, to solve this problem in my own community. So I mean, one of the things I love the most about our work is that our students become so confident, because they learn to build technology and now they feel they have a super powerful tool, not only to get a job and start a career, but to also start solving the problems around them.

HOST: Peru is a country currently experiencing economic growth, but women and girls are still disproportionately disadvantaged there.

Laboratoria helps these women by training them for a career in coding for a small monthly fee. They are very clear that what they offer is a career in technology, not just a course. Latin America has over half a million unfilled tech jobs, and if those jobs can be filled by women who would not ordinarily get a chance to enter the sector, then it’s a win for diversity, for women, and for the companies who employ them. Women trained by Laboratoria have gone on to work for companies including Microsoft and Google. Mariana’s vision is to train ten thousand women in the next five years.

MARIANA: We get these amazing women that apply and we target specifically young women who. due to economic limitation, haven’t been able to access quality higher education and are therefore usually unemployed or just working in the informal sector doing low-skilled work. And then they join and it’s like magic. It’s an awesome experience. They work together to really learn to challenge themselves to become better, to believe in themselves. They learn coding, but then they also learn all these very important life skills and after they’re ready, we go and work with companies in need of their talent and have these type of talent and we place them there.

HOST: By working very closely with companies to help up-skill women and dramatically improve their employment and economic prospects, Mariana is helping the tech industry to take responsibility for closing its own skills gap by embracing diversity and creating a level playing field for workers of all backgrounds.

MARIANA: What we see in our work is that there’s so many, so many skill sets that if you’ve been born in a family with limited social economic resources with difficulties, it’s gonna be very hard to get, you know, you’re definitely at a disadvantage to someone that was born in a different environment and I think it’s not your fault that you were born there.

For Mariana the responsibility of building a future shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of these young women.

MARIANA: It’s actually a responsibility of the entire society to help that part of the population overcome those difficulties and take them to an even playing field where they can compete at the same level. And this is a lot of our conversation with hiring companies. Our students have faced a lot of difficulty and that actually makes them great and makes them better in so many ways. In so many others, they’re gonna need a little bit more coaching than someone that grew up in a family where they saw their mom and dad going through formal employment stability and are more relatable to that, that path.

HOST: For Mariana, that even playing field requires empathy on the part of companies.

MARIANA: So I think we really need to make an effort to understand the circumstances that put so many of our youth at a disadvantage and as a society, how can we work to make sure that we don’t prevail that disadvantage?

HOST: It really works. Former US president Barack Obama called Laboratoria’s success extraordinary. Their graduates’ income is, on average, tripled compared to their previous jobs, a genuine success story with significant implications for the women of Peru and the future of the local technology workforce.

If you’re an engineer or coder, technology is the future. But what about the future of a different type of work?

Predictions vary on how many current jobs will be taken by robots, and not all jobs are easily or economically replaceable. There will be a need for manual labour for some time yet. Those currently in a manual job may one day see the labour of their hands replaced by robots, but the immediate future holds different challenges, including the very real prospect of a virtual boss.

HOST: If you’re a food delivery driver, your day’s deliveries are shaped by an algorithm and delivered by an App.

MORJEN: My name is Morjen. I’m originally from Bangladesh, but I’ve been living in London for the last 18 years and I do food delivery.

HOST: A typical day for a driver starts by clocking on via the app and algorithm, which then gives them their orders and delivery addresses. They then clock off via the app at the end of the day, straightforward enough. But what if there’s a problem?

MORJEN: So if I pick up a food and I went to a customer, and I give him the food, if they complain to the company, they will block you and they will send you an email. And if you don’t reply within two hours or three hours, then you’re done.

HOST: Morjen says, the most common reason for drivers to get blocked is because of a dispute with a customer. These disputes are often an issue created by the restaurant that prepares and sells the food. That’s something that drivers have no control over. For Morjen, it’s hard to feel human when your boss is an algorithm.

MORJEN: Sometimes you don’t feel respected. No one cares. So yeah, there’s no real emotion to it. No one cares because they know, okay, if you are done, then they’ll have another one. They don’t know who you are. Are you a good person or bad person? The machine doesn’t know who I am.

HOST: Morjen feels he has little or no control over his work. When things go wrong, he says it’s difficult to have his point of view heard. He believes going to work would dramatically improve if his employers made it easier for workers to simply have a conversation with a human rather than a machine.

MORJEN: Just the chance to talk to someone and say like, ‘okay, I’ve done this. I have said that’. Like other companies do, people, managers or bosses, so they would understand, ‘okay, this happened, but next time don’t do this’. You know, you would get disciplinary action or something instead of blocking. They have only this job, so then they’re in a difficult position when people have family. It is really expensive and hard to live in London.

Global innovation foundation NESTA recently published a blog post by a warehouse worker from Yorkshire, England, who takes his orders from an AI over a headset. The worker, who published under the pseudonym Zack, wrote:

“It tells me which slots to go to and how many cases to pick. You talk back to it and tell it how many cases you have taken and then say “OK” then it sends you to the next slot”.

But rather than resent being supervised by a machine, he has chosen to embrace the positives, saying he doesn’t mind being told what to do by the headset “If it was a human on my back constantly barking orders at me, I would probably end up arguing and losing my job as I don’t like being bossed about.”

Zack’s testimony is part of NESTA’s Common Futures blog, edited by Tom Saunders, a principal researcher in the inclusive innovation team at NESTA. Tom specialises in the role of technology in inequality. We asked him if the future of work really is a positive one.

TOM: There’s no such thing as the future, we create it. And whenever you have statements out in public about the future of work, they’re very definitive. AI is going to do X, it’s going to create X number of jobs, it’s going to destroy X number of jobs. And none of those statements are true to any degree. And you know, sometimes it’s the hope of the person that’s speaking — “I want this to happen” is really what they’re saying.

HOST: Stories about the future can impact the present. And the problem is they are often told by tech companies and presented as foregone conclusions that policymakers and all of us are just going to have to get used to.

TOM: I think what needs acknowledging is that there are a whole range of possible things that could happen and we to think about those different things and involve a much more diverse group of people in that discussion rather than just kind of rely on statements of startups, unions, and others. It has to be more diverse than that.

HOST: Tom believes that future of work needs to be led by conversations with all workers, not just the decision makers at the top.

TOM: So you may have some panel or report about the future of work and nine times out of ten the glaring emission is the voices of workers, you know, and that can be highly skilled workers or that can be cleaners.

I think the challenge is you can have all these debates about whether AI and robots are the future of work. But I think a key issue is you need a broader range of people having those discussions about what we want and then how would you work towards that more democratic vision of the future.

HOST: By involving all workers in the conversation about technology, you can fully understand the impact of automation and AI on the culture that ultimately has to accept it. Predictions of robots taking all the jobs aren’t, as Tom points out, based in fact. We have no facts about the future, and Tom argues that civil society will step in when automation goes too far.

That’s a theory that was recently tested when trillion-dollar retailer Amazon patented a new device to protect warehouse workers while operating a robotic arm that picked goods from shelves for dispatch. Accompanying illustrations of the device, which would enable workers to enter areas of the warehouse currently unsafe because of high-speed drones and robots, looked more or less like a cage.

The image of putting human workers in cages is not good for any company, but for Amazon, a corporation beleaguered by accusations of exploitative or unsafe working conditions, it was a PR nightmare. While the patent was filed in 2016, the story didn’t break until 2018 when details of the cage were included in a paper by AI ethics researchers Kate Crawford and Vladen Jolen. The authors describe the cage as dystopian, saying it, “represents an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines”.

The cage was never implemented, and — thanks to the worldwide media coverage and social media backlash — it now stands as a cautionary tale to industry, a clear warning that there is a tipping point. The message here is that those developing technology for the workplace need to start including different voices and perspectives.

In Portugal, 17 year old Antonio is training at technical college to become a robotics engineer and coder.

ANTONIO: I want to work on my computer to create the programs we need to program our robot. I like a lot of cars and robots since I was a kid. So it’s a personal thing. That’s why I came to this school to learn specific things about the things I liked and I thought I will be good in my future.

HOST: Antonio feels positive about his own future, because he is learning about something he already enjoys. He plans to use his passion for engineering and robotics to help other people. His vision of an automated future is a positive one because he is practical about the role of AI.

ANTONIO: I think we as a persons, and the robots, we have to cooperate because the robots need us because we create the robots and we program the robots to do what we want, they are just hardware brains and software brains.

HOST: It’s easy to imagine a future where the hardware brains and software brains take over, but that can only happen if we let it. The future is in the hands of young developers like Antonio. We asked Antonio what motivates him, helping people, or money. His response speaks to the sort of work ethic and pride that we heard in Geoffrey Owen’s story at the beginning of this episode.

ANTONIO: I prefer to be doing what I like, what is good in thinking about the other persons, not being like the mean hacker or something to help the society growing in being better, make better things, not by the richness.

CREDITS: Nevertheless is a Storythings production, series producer is Renay Richardson, executive producers are Nathan Martin and Anjali Ramachandran, this episode was produced and written by Tracy King music and sound design by Jason Oberholtzer and Michael Simonelli, supported by Pearson and presented by me, Leigh Alexander.

More episodes plus transcripts and further reading can be found on our website www.neverthelesspodcast.com

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This week’s unsung hero is Juliana Rotich, founder of Ushahidi which creates open source crowd sourced tools for crisis information.


Nevertheless is a a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Supported by Pearson. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Soundcloud, TuneIn or RadioPublic.