Are we prepared for workforce disruption?

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This week, the Business Journal takes a look at automation within select industries, but some suggest it’s only a matter of time before artificial intelligence and robotics touch nearly every aspect of our lives.

And while automation is bound to change the workforce, we don’t know how many existing jobs will disappear, be displaced or change, and what kinds of new jobs will be created.

But analysts around the world are working on figuring it out, and the estimates are scary.

Here’s what they’re saying: A study at Oxford University claims 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of automation (meaning robots will take over) in the next few decades. Another study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says 9 percent of jobs in the organization’s 21-member countries can be automated and there’s a McKinsey report from last year that claims 400 million to 800 million jobs worldwide might be done by robots or computers by 2030.

It’s happening already: Consider self-checkouts at the supermarket replacing cashiers; automated trucks replacing drivers. Some restaurants are automating ordering, replacing wait staff.

Jobs are changing and the way we work will change as well. The key word here is displaced — not disappear. And some experts are optimistic that change is for the better.

At the Harvard Business Review, they point out that productivity has remained stagnant in the nation for decades. Automation could be the boost the nation’s economy needs. In El Paso County, unemployment hovers around 3.5 percent, but about 37 percent of the population eligible to work aren’t even looking for jobs.

And as the population in Europe, Japan and the United States ages, the concern is there won’t be enough workers to maintain economic growth. We’ll all enter a period of stagnation.

But not with automation.

Advanced robotics, machine-learning and artificial intelligence could boost productivity to levels not seen in decades. Automation could create new business models that propel improvements across industries that aren’t possible with human labor.

But automation will be disruptive to the world of work. The same McKinsey report says that more jobs will be created than displaced; they will just be different jobs.

But that means we need to focus on education. The new jobs will require a higher level of technical skills, advanced communication ability, and more critical thinking and interpersonal skills and cognitive ability. The move toward automation could create downward pressure on mid-wage jobs, widening the wage gap in developed economies.

The solution isn’t to stall automation. Automation is an opportunity. We need to proactively prepare the workforce for it — and we need to realize that greater productivity leads to greater consumption, which leads to more jobs. We need to spend more on education and engage tech companies and other firms to tell us what skills they need. We need to tailor all levels of education toward meeting those needs.

And there should be a big push by government and educational institutions to make sure displaced workers are trained for new jobs. We need to make sure we are preparing for the way work will change in the future — and that future will certainly include automation. 

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