We are living in a time of extraordinary change. In this Fourth Industrial Revolution, every individual, business, industry and government is being impacted by breakthroughs in computing power, connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology and other innovative technologies. This is a revolution without boundaries spreading across the world with incredible velocity. By 2020, more people will have mobile phones than have electricity or running water in their homes or villages. Cars are becoming intelligent robots on wheels. Factories are automating manufacturing, displacing tens of thousands of workers. Call centres are turning to AI-powered chatbots to manage customer interactions. We have already outsourced a lot of work to algorithms — managing financial portfolios, qualifying loan applications, reading MRIs, recommending products and optimizing travel routes. The human genome has become as readable and editable as a text document, transforming precision medicine.
The boundary-less Fourth Industrial Revolution offers boundless possibilities. It also creates a high degree of difficulty for policy-makers and regulators trying to keep up the rapid pace of change.
Ensuring the digital revolution is a force for good
Technology is neither good nor bad — it’s what you do with it that makes the difference. As in previous eras, new technologies also carry negative consequences. AI and genetic engineering in the wrong hands could alter our future in undesirable ways.
For too long we have done our work in isolation, unaware of the effects our innovations have on societies and environment as a whole. As business leaders, government officials, educators and citizens, we need to create a common set of principles and values that take us to the future that we all want together. The World Economic Forum, founded by Professor Klaus Schwab in 1971, has played an important role in working with stakeholders across public and private sectors to create policy and governance frameworks for adopting new technologies in ways that have a positive and inclusive impact. I am honoured to serve as the inaugural chair of the new World Economic Forum Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution advisory board, which just opened in San Francisco. As the innovation capital of the world, with Silicon Valley and outstanding educational institutions, leading researchers and an incredible community of entrepreneurs, business leaders and thought leaders, San Francisco is the natural home for a centre focused on addressing the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The centre has identified an initial set of priorities, ranging from autonomous vehicles and precision medicine to the internet of things and blockchain. All the priorities are interconnected, and collectively will redefine the nature of work.
AI and increased automation are already having a significant impact on employment, and could lead to a crisis of workforce development, contributing to a growing global inequality gap. By one estimate, nearly half of jobs worldwide could be at risk over the next two decades due to AI and automation. At the same time, entirely new categories of jobs are emerging to replace those given over to the dramatic shift in work. By one estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will have jobs in categories that don’t yet exist.
All hands on deck
I attended a roundtable earlier this month at the White House to discuss workforce development with President Donald Trump, Vice Michael President Pence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the CEOs from IBM, Dow Chemical, BMW, Schaeffler Group and Siemens. We agreed that an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to meet this workforce development challenge, and intend to follow up with future strategies for apprenticeship programmes geared for today’s and tomorrow’s workers. In the US alone there are more than 500,000 open technology jobs, but our universities produce only 50,000 science graduates each year. We need to prepare our young people for the workforce of tomorrow, investing in areas such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and in creating apprenticeships as paths to career readiness. And these apprenticeships can be accredited and validated as true educational vehicles.
At the same time, we must create programmes to give today’s workforce the skills they need to succeed and adapt to ongoing technological change. And, in building this workforce of tomorrow, we need to ensure that we achieve gender equality: that women are paid the same as men — equal pay for equal work.
The role of business
I believe that businesses are incredible platforms for change, and that every business leader can have a direct role in creating economic opportunity for millions of people by investing in education and training programmes for existing and potential talent. Companies are great universities for educating the workforce of the future. They invest in training employees, as well as interns and apprentices, to drive growth and innovation, which in many cases amounts to specialized instruction and hands-on experience that can’t be obtained at even the most prestigious universities. Every CEO can also benefit from providing opportunities for people in their communities and cultivating a more diverse and inclusive workforce. And employees today are more committed to social responsibility and eager to give their time to take on this challenge. Many companies are already investing in helping people acquire new skills. Dow, IBM and Siemens have established apprenticeship programmes to help fill the skills gap in their industries. CareerWise Colorado is focused on creating 20,000 apprenticeships in the state for high-demand occupations across multiple business sectors over the next decade. At my company, we address workforce development through Futureforce, a diverse set of programmes that includes adopting local public schools to address K-12 STEM education, partnering with nonprofits and NGOs on vocational training, recruiting from universities and community colleges, and creating hundreds of apprenticeships for urban youth, more than half of whom we’ve hired. Our employees have given more than 2 million hours of volunteer time over the past 18 years, many to our Futureforce programmes. We offer free training to US service members, veterans and spouses, and operate Trailhead and VetForce, interactive learning programmes that give people the necessary skills to land tech jobs. I’m personally inspired by TJ McElroy, who after losing his sight in the Marine Corps, became a certified information-technology administrator through this programme. Today he instructs other disabled vets to prepare them for technology careers. CEOs can and should do much more to build the workforce of the future, while bringing along the workforce of today. Our companies have a vast army of millions of people around the country who could have a tremendous impact by teaching apprentices, working side-by-side with them. In this way, we help close the skills gap, nurture prospective employees, and develop the future workforce that will support a strong and growing economy. Rather than acting independently, all of the great companies — working with community colleges, universities, veterans groups, NGOs, K-12 schools, the government and the World Economic Forum — should come together to achieve workforce moonshots. I’ve proposed a US moonshot, creating 5 million apprenticeships in the next five years around the country.
In the coming decades, we need to establish guardrails that keep the innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on a track to benefit all of humanity. We can all individually have a direct role in shaping our future, and creating economic opportunity for millions of people by investing our time and resources in helping others.
As Prof. Schwab says, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution can compromise humanity’s traditional sources of meaning — work, community, family, and identity — or it can lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a sense of shared destiny. The choice is ours.”