How To Keep Your Job When Robots Take Over

August 17, 2016, 4:00 PM UTC
Robot Restaurant In Kunshan
KUNSHAN, CHINA - MAY 22 : Robot waiters are seen working at a robot restaurant in Kunshan, China on May 22, 2016. The restaurant has a total of 10 robots in heights of 1.2 meters. Each robot costs 50,000 yuan and all used for delivery and cooking. (Photo by Zhong Zhenbin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Photo by Zhong Zhenbin — Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Tiger Tyagarajan is CEO of Genpact, a global business process management and services company.

It’s no secret that robots are taking over jobs once reserved for humans. Modern assembly lines are filled with robots that can perform tasks faster and cheaper than human counterparts. Smart machines have begun replacing cashiers. The list goes on, and it’s not just factory workers that have to worry. Over 80% of stock markets are currently using robot traders – threatening the very nature of the trading profession. About 570,000 robo-surgery operations were performed last year. Even journalists aren’t safe – The Associated Press now generates some news stories written by a system developed by Automated Insights.

This is just the beginning. It is estimated that as many as 45% of the activities employees are paid to perform today can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. At our current rate, displacement will cascade across job functions and titles – even CEOs will not be immune. In fact, the World Economic Forum predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will take more than 5 million jobs by 2020.

So, should we be panicking? Not necessarily. History has proven technology to be a job creator, not a destroyer. During the industrial revolution, workers worried about mechanization stealing jobs. And to a certain extent, they were right. In 1900, 40% of the U.S. labor force worked in agriculture. Today, that figure is just 2%. Yet, the workforce is still here. A recent study found that technology actually created more jobs than it destroyed in the last 144 years – saving many people from dull, repetitive and dangerous work.

Likewise, with AI, there will always be a need for people to code and build the machines, which will lead to a new wave of innovation and jobs that will pay more. Our focus now should be on the training and education to provide the displaced workers with the skills they need to keep up with the jobs of tomorrow.

Here are three things government, business leaders and the workforce need to do today to prepare for the jobs of the future:

Stop neglecting math & science: The rise of AI will pave the way for new jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), yet only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. This is hardly surprising, given that most students view current math and science classes as boring and irrelevant to their daily lives. To reverse this trend, we’ll need to make STEM fun for students by investing in hands-on, creative educational initiatives that will instill a lifelong interest in these fields – such as building a robot or designing a dress out of lights and sensors.

Make learning the only constant: New innovations are disrupting markets every day, creating an environment of constant change. If new workers want to avoid becoming obsolete, they’ll need to squash the common notion of education ending at age 22. Likewise, the C-suite will need to invest heavily in continuous education programs for employees if they want to keep the business moving forward. CEOs should think of reskilling as a business-critical mission vs. a nice-to-do and invest heavily in educational programs for existing and potential talent.

Just as important as reskilling currently employed workers is reskilling the unemployed. While many programs exist, such as President Obama’s Upskill Initiative, the unfortunate reality is that many workers have already given up. According to the June 2016 federal jobs report, more than half a million unemployed Americans have quit looking for work because they think that certain jobs are below them, don’t want to work for younger people or are unwilling to pick up new skills. We can combat these widespread attitudes by increasing access to innovative and creative ways to get everyone involved in reskilling. We need to embed the importance of constant learning into our culture so that everyone views it as a part of their lifelong journey.

Stay passionately curious: It’s also the responsibility of all workers, from CEOs to interns, to prepare themselves for the future. Technology is changing so fast that the skills that are relevant today could be worthless tomorrow, but for a curious person, evolving skills with the market isn’t a challenge. You may have the data analytics skills required for the job you’re interviewing for today, but if you aren’t willing to spend the blood, sweat and tears to continuously evolve yourself, you’ll end up falling behind. In this environment, the most important quality that we should all develop is Curiosity Quotient (CQ). To stay relevant, we must constantly ask questions, dig for new ideas, surround ourselves with diverse talent and use them to provoke our thinking — even if it contradicts our thinking at times. It’s amazing how great of an impact passionate curiosity combined with diverse inclusive teams can have on the success of a leader, team and business.

While AI technologies will undoubtedly displace many American workers, the need for human labor is no closer to being eliminated today as it was centuries ago. Ultimately, AI will transform the American economy for the better – driving unprecedented productivity and freeing up humans to focus on more meaningful endeavors. The question now is – how long until we reap these benefits?

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